Carol Ott is Tenant Advocacy Director for the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition and has been writing about housing and advocating for fair and safe housing since 2008, focusing on the city’s most vulnerable communities.
Read her full bio at the Conversations page
Steve – You’ve told me you’re not really a baseball fan, so I doubly appreciate you going along with this format. What is it you don’t like? You’re all about creating change, so what would have to change about baseball to make it more attractive to you, or is it too late for that?
Carol – Too late, I’m afraid. Replace the word “baseball” with “cricket” and I’m all in.
Steve – What was the first ballgame you went to and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in?
Carol – I think the first game I ever went to was a Padres game. My mom and I were in San Diego visiting relatives – unfortunately, the only thing I really remember about it (hey, it was more than 40 years ago) was the moment when a drunk college girl in the row behind us threw up on my mom. Not a great start to my baseball-watching career, to be honest.
The first election I voted in was I believe Bush Senior against Dukakis in 1988. (When you initially asked me, I thought it was Reagan, but I didn’t turn 18 until 1986.) My parents didn’t talk about who they voted for, and it was considered rude to ask, so I voted for whoever I assumed would do the least amount of damage.
Steve – You’ve also said you consider yourself “apolitical, or at least non-partisan. I vote, that’s about it.” That was in an interview ten years ago, as you were building your profile as a housing advocate. Has that changed? Does your work today require you to be more political just to get things done?
Carol – I still refuse to get into the weeds when it comes to politics. If anything, I’m even more non-partisan than I was ten years ago. I am currently an “unaffiliated” voter, and will never again join a party – they’re no more than twee little social clubs. Thankfully, I will always be able to get my job done, with or without politics.
Steve – What’s the biggest single problem facing Baltimore today? You’ve been around long enough to know how the system works – and how it doesn’t. For you what’s the most urgent policy issue that needs to be addressed? And what’s the most frustrating thing about working on behalf of the people you advocate for?
Carol – The biggest problem, and the most frustrating thing about my work are the same thing: racism. It colors (pun intended) every single policy we’ve implemented in Baltimore, since the beginning of time – and that hasn’t changed. It’s just quieter now, and done in the shadows. Racism is a policy choice.
(There’s a good primer on Baltimore’s issues with racism, segregation and housing via this symposium organised by Johns Hopkins University’s Urban Health Institute)
Steve – We hear increasingly these days that “the rent is too damn high” and while a general housing shortage seems to be getting worse nationally, in Baltimore more than a third of renters are paying more than half their income in rent. What can practically be done to ameliorate the situation for renters who are struggling?
Carol – Stop letting landlords increase the rent when they’re not licensed and their properties have multiple code violations. Shut the door on slumlords who intentionally poison children with lead paint, while collecting government subsidies for their falling-down homes.
All of these things use public money – court time, inspections, healthcare – these things are not free. Take that money and subsidize housing for people who don’t earn enough to pay the rent. Or, raise the minimum wage to an amount that would allow people to not only survive, but to thrive – a Universal Basic Income or housing subsidy would be a much better use of our tax money than most of what we waste money on.
(Carol is one of those people who knows of which she speaks. Throughout her career she has worked to try to improve the city and the lives of its residents – listen here to an episode of the Marc Steiner Show from 2013 about her efforts to use public art to create awareness of neglected properties, based on an extensive piece by Baynard Woods in the now sadly defunct Baltimore City Paper.)
(A decade on, Carol still keeps a close eye on the various property redevelopment ventures that descend on the city.
“Baltimore is desperately seeking a savior,” she recently told the Baltimore Beat. “That can come in the form of one person, one company, or multiple companies. But the idea is the city doesn’t have the resources or the capital or the people to make it happen, so the city goes outside to find this magic bullet.”)
Steve – We also often hear that “all politics is local” – and the recent water contamination issue showed the need for an effective system of co-ordinating an official response. How much confidence do you have in local politics and politicians?
Carol – That issue affected many neighbourhoods, not just one. I don’t believe our city’s government is able to effectively govern, as so many agencies operate as if they’re in a vacuum. There has to be better collaboration and transparency – especially transparency. People in government knew about the water issue a day or two before residents did, and those people need to answer for that. They expected elderly people to schlep to a “water distribution site” and carry water back to their senior buildings – there wasn’t a lot of thought put into the residents who were affected, just a show of “look what we’re doing” – and this isn’t the first time. Our city’s government needs to start valuing its citizens.
Steve – You mentioned when we were chatting that you consider other places to be more “home” for you than Baltimore. Is there another city in the US that you’ve visited that does things right, or well, or at least does something that Baltimore can learn from?
Carol – I grew up just outside of DC, and every time I go back there, I’m reminded of what a functioning city looks and feels like. It’s incredibly expensive to live there, though, and gentrification/displacement have been problematic for decades. Baltimore, with the right people in government, could have a city that slightly resembles DC (the functional bits) without the widespread displacement. It most likely won’t happen in my lifetime, but maybe in my son’s.
Another city that tugs at my heart is Atlanta. I was last there in 2019, with Myles, and I felt there was a stark contrast between Atlanta and Baltimore, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until the night before we were leaving. We were downtown, in Buckhead, in Atlanta University Center, but no matter where you were, people were…dare I say it…happy? Relaxed, going about their business, living their lives. Sure, Atlanta has lousy transit and their housing is as ridiculous as Baltimore’s, but it seemed like people were happy to be there. It didn’t feel like residents thought of it as a waystation/stepping stone to somewhere else.
Steve – You’re the first Q&A subject I’ve spoken to that mentioned you used to be a “Nielsen household” – and I know you’re someone who has paid close attention to media consumption over the years. With Baltimore going through something of a local news shake-up recently, how well served do you think residents of the city are by their media – particularly the people that you advocate for? And how important is your ability to manage social media to doing your job?
Carol – I don’t think Baltimore is well-served by most of its media. The new outlet that was supposed to be more “inclusive” than the Sun, (the Baltimore Banner) recently allowed a right-wing homophobe from Anne Arundel County to write an op-ed piece that focused on pride flags in elementary schools, and the silence from Banner management was deafening, even as their own reporters took to social media to voice their outrage and disgust. Ultimately, the editor issued an “apology”, but it was too little too late.
I do have a lot of hope for the revamped Baltimore Beat, though. Led by Lisa Snowden, it’s a Black-led free weekly with a collection of amazing writers and other staff. I look forward to seeing what happens as the Beat evolves and grows.
Social media is an integral part of my job – it’s how I keep tabs on what’s happening around the city, in real time. However, my social media accounts are all personal accounts, not employer accounts. I need to be able to speak freely, without following someone else’s agenda or communications plan. I’ve gotten to a place where I have some really amazing followers and people I engage with daily, through a heavy use of blocking and muting the racists and misogynists that occasionally pop up.
Steve – Finally, back to baseball, sort of… Even though you’re not really a fan, how important do you think it is for the collective civic psyche when any of the local sports teams might be doing well? Does it permeate through the city or are there just too many people with too many more important things to worry about?
Carol – I think if you had asked that question pre-2020, I would have said yes, it permeates through the city. Right now, I honestly just think too many people are grappling with some incredibly heavy issues. I have almost 1,100 clients at work (and for the first time since 2018, more are from Baltimore County than Baltimore City), most of whom are struggling financially.
My guess is most of them don’t have the money, time, or energy to even begin to care about baseball, or anything else besides digging themselves out of the financial hole they’ve been thrown into.
You can follow Carol’s always informative and entertaining Twitter account here: @CarolSOtt