We should be growing the middle class, not courting it

May 27, 2014 

Re: “Courting the middle class: Multi-car garage homes and nice lawns are what Lakewood wants to attract” (TNT, 5-21).

Sixteen years ago my husband and I got married and immediately bought a small rambler in Lakewood within walking distance of Fort Steilacoom Park. We do have a nice lawn, a big back deck and a yard big enough for a garden. We even have some rhodies and azaleas. But (gasp) we have a carport. Does Lakewood want us?

In a country that’s becoming increasingly stratified, strengthening the middle class is a worthy goal. But let’s go deeper. According to the U.S. Census website, the median household income in Lakewood is $43,801, and 12.5 percent of families are below the poverty level. Meanwhile, according to real estate website Zillow, the median price of homes currently listed in Lakewood is $210,000.

With all this in mind, I wondered what it would take to buy one of the two- or three-car garage homes on Amber Drive that was put forth in the article as “the kind of home the city wants to see.”

I took a drive over to Amber Drive, which is in the well-established Oakbrook neighborhood. Half the homes on this quiet street are directly on the golf course itself. Two homes are currently for sale there, one listed at $384,950 and the other at $449,950. At the high end, that’s more than double the median listing price in the city.

Does the median household income here in Lakewood come near to supporting a mortgage like that? Using a mortgage affordability calculator at USAA.com, I put in the median income of $43,801 with $400 per month in debt. Based on those numbers, a family would qualify for a home valued at $157,500 at 4.5 percent interest with 5 percent down, or a home valued at $186,300 with 20 percent down.

Agreed, it would be nice if everyone could afford a home like those on Amber Drive. Well, they can’t. And I hope no one is suggesting that we encourage people to overreach on qualifying for a home loan as a way of building nicer neighborhoods. Have we already forgotten what that led to nationwide?

The perceived low quality of our Clover Park School District was cited in the article as a reason that some people with families don’t want to move to Lakewood. Our experience has been otherwise. Our son Alex has been very well served in this district. In fact, in his early days at Oakbrook Elementary, he said, “I wish my school goed all the way to college.” (Don’t worry, they did teach him how to conjugate verbs.)

Anyone who is concerned about the performance of our school children can join the PTA, volunteer to tutor a kid, and support Communities in Schools and the Boys & Girls Club.

Back to housing. If we want to see upscale homes in the community, we’ll need to upscale the job opportunities, too. If the median income can hardly buy the median home as it is, why would we want to attract developers to build even more expensive homes? It doesn’t add up.

Building nicer homes and hoping that people who can afford them will move in seems to do a disservice to the perfectly fine people we’ve already got here. I’m sure that many of our Lakewood citizens who are currently living in apartments, for instance, would appreciate expansion of their economic opportunities such that they could buy a home – big, small or in between.

We need to avoid falling into the trap of thinking about kinds of people and instead work together to create the kind of community where everyone can thrive. This involves all of us; it’s not something that falls solely to our city leaders.

So let’s not court the middle class, let’s build it. People first, houses second. Upward mobility is stalling, and the solutions are not simple. We can’t move everyone next to the golf course.

An ad I saw last week for – appropriately enough – a real estate company, said: “Dream with your eyes open.” To do that, let’s take a good look at the people we already have here in Lakewood and create opportunity for them to move into the middle class.

Let the houses – and the homeowners – follow.

Catherine Forte is a former reader columnist and a member of the Human Services Funding Advisory Board for the City of Lakewood, but the opinions expressed here are her own. E-mail her at csforte@comcast.net.

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