The challenge is to expand opportunities throughout the city for all its present residents, [to} create opportunities for young people to stay in the city, and to make the city a destination for talented newcomers to the region. The City of Birmingham’s many assets can be the foundation for a new urban century of opportunity, livability and sustainability…. Providing Next Economy opportunities to a broader group of city residents through improved public education and workforce development is a critical challenge for the future.
— City of Birmingham Comprehensive Plan (2012)
Here is a fact: Rental rates for apartments, condominiums and lofts in the city of Birmingham are rising. Five years ago, the average rental rate for such housing was $676 per month. Just two years later, it had risen to $813, an increase of just over 20 percent.
Today, three more years along, the average renter in Birmingham pays $973 per month. That’s another increase of almost 20 percent — 19.7, to be more precise — during that period, and a total increase of 43.9 percent in the past five years.
Here is another fact: Over roughly the same period, the median household income in the city of Birmingham also increased — at least on paper. According to the latest available figures, the city’s current median household income is $31,217 (generally viewed by statisticians as the most accurate measurement of the relative economic health of a given community, median household income is the data point at which half of total households earn more and half earn less than a given figure).
Again, on paper, Birmingham’s current figure represents an increase of 4.1 percent over the past five years. Adjusted for inflation, however, the city’s median household income actually has decreased by nearly three percent during that time. In other words, the price of housing continues to rise precipitously, at a time when income growth in Birmingham can be characterized as stagnant at best.
In some ways, of course, our situation in Birmingham is merely a reflection of national trends. At present, Americans who rent their residences are paying 30 percent of their monthly income to do so, compared to the average historical rate of about 26 percent. In constant-dollar terms, that means that the median household in Birmingham pays about $780 per month in rent today, which is an increase of more than 15 percent over five years. A three percent annual increase might not sound like a lot — until you remember that, as we’ve noted, there has been no comparable rise in the median income level.
What does this mean for Birmingham’s future? More specifically, what does it mean to our prospects of continuing and building upon the many positive — if largely superficial — indicators of economic growth and development that have emerged over the course of the present decade to date?
Or, to pose it in a way that is even more specific (as well, perhaps, as more provocative), Can Birmingham generate the income growth necessary to justify the current boom in the construction of apartments, condos, and lofts, as well as creating new opportunities for residential and commercial development in neighborhoods outside those few — primarily downtown and, broadly speaking, on the Southside — in which the current boom is concentrated?
I use the term “justify” above advisedly, because if the answer to that last question is “No,” then Birmingham is currently engaged in a speculative folly of epic proportions. And if that’s the case, there will come a point in the none-too-distant future at which the bubble bursts, with a few real estate developers and construction companies having made a lot of money, and the community as a whole left holding the proverbial bag.
I’ve maintained for some time that Birmingham’s answer to that question will be a — if not, in fact, the — primary determinant of our future over the long haul. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s an answer that has moral implications as well as economic ones. It’s an answer that will indicate both what kind of city we want to be and, ultimately, what kind of city we can be.
Going beyond the potentially toxic relationship between rising rents and stagnant income growth, the comparatively low level of income in Birmingham coupled with our comparatively high poverty rate — actually, “alarmingly high” would be a more apt descriptor — to present a monumental challenge for the city. Add to that challenge equally daunting deficiencies and needs in the areas of education, workforce development, job creation, public health, transportation, homelessness, intergovernmental relations, revitalization and enhancement at the neighborhood level and the continued decline in the number of families with children as a percentage of the overall population, and it’s not difficult to conclude that our community is approaching a definitive tipping point.
Either we do the hard work necessary to take on those issues and begin resolving them, strategically and in positive ways, or else the current boom will turn out to have been something like our “Prague Spring” — a brief period of superficial progress, followed by a decisive, and likely final, lowering of the curtain on our present visions of transformational growth and prosperity that is sustainable over the long term. To be blunt about it, the things we choose to prioritize and do in Birmingham over the next five to 10 years will determine whether our city is, in the long run, more like Austin, Texas, or Gary, Indiana.
Which leads us to the diagnoses and prescriptions contained in the Comprehensive Plan the city adopted in 2012. By the way, it’s the first citywide plan formulated in roughly a half-century, an accomplishment for which I’d be remiss in not crediting Mayor William Bell. I’ve been told by more than one person that the mayor has, on more than one occasion, referred to me as “a William Bell hater,” a characterization to which I take exception, while also acknowledging that to one whose position automatically makes them a target of scrutiny, analysis and criticism, the line between “critic” and “hater” can sometimes seem blurrier than the target might like. From my side, I think the record demonstrates a consistent willingness to give Mayor Bell credit where my critical faculties deem it to be due.
Be all of that as it may, the Comprehensive Plan is clear-eyed in both its observations and conclusions. And while I don’t necessarily concur wholeheartedly with all of either, the plan does provide a fixed point of reference for the challenges and opportunities that confront Birmingham in the present, as well as a roadmap for plotting the city’s future. The plan makes a number of trenchant observations — no less so because they are well known to most any citizen who is paying attention — including the following:
Blight — abandoned and derelict housing, vacant lots — is a critical challenge in many neighborhoods, especially those closer to the city center.
- Commercial corridors and many neighborhood commercial districts have vacant stores and lots. Many neighborhoods need more occupied housing units (note: fully 20 percent of the city’s housing stock is vacant, including more than 7 percent that qualifies as abandoned) to support retail and services for their needs.
- Pollution remains a concern. Contamination at vacant industrial sites and adjacent areas, pollution of waterways, air pollution with elevated ozone levels, and lead paint in older housing and in soils are among the issues that can affect human health and safety, as well as constraining economic development.
- There are few practical alternatives to getting around by car. Transit routes, frequency, and overall service to not attract riders who have a choice…
- City government has limited control over basic infrastructure. It has responsibility for the storm drainage system and local streets, but water, sewer, and other utility systems are owned and operated by other public or private entities.
As I’ve said, these are daunting problems, for which the Comprehensive Plan offers both immediate and long-term recommendations. But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details — meaning, in this case, the question is whether, and how closely and well, our city government is paying attention to both the diagnoses and the prescriptions contained in the plan. In the words of the Comprehensive Plan, A long-term perspective starts with a plan, with putting new strategies in place in the short term, and then building on the short-term activities to replicate and accelerate success.
I’ll have a chance to ask Mayor Bell about the Birmingham’s progress against that long-term plan in an interview scheduled for this Friday, August 19. That interview is one of series of conversations I’ll be having with local leaders over the next several weeks, and will be the first to be aired as a podcast series that Weld will introduce in September, in conjunction with the fifth anniversary of the launch of our newspaper and website.
The purpose of the podcast is to expand on the public-interest journalism that has been, and will continue to be, our hallmark. And while there will be plenty of conversation about current events, the real focus will be on the future of Birmingham, those challenges and opportunities that are known to us all, and the ways in which we are, or are not, preparing to meet them.