EDITORIAL: The writing on the (shared) wall

The Town of Bethlehem is faced with a major opportunity to decide the future of the town with a rewrite of its Comprehensive Plan. And we’re here to advocate for not just a smart solution, but also an inclusive one.

A recent town report has formalized what any casual observer of the Bethlehem housing market knows to be true: in the past few years, the vast majority of new housing construction has consisted of apartments, and the same is true of what’s in the pipeline for future development.

This is of particular note as town leaders prepare to accept the findings of a committee tasked with examining the 2005 Comprehensive Plan. Some worry should apartment housing invade the town, a shift in the market or in sensibilities would leave Bethlehem with tons of empty or abandoned apartment buildings.

A valid concern, to be sure. But one to be tempered by a desire to make Bethlehem a 21st-century town. The market is speaking now. Back in 2000, the Census determined in Bethlehem there were 1,000 units of housing in buildings containing five or more units. That had risen to 1,436 units in the 2007-11 American Community Survey, to 10.5 percent of the town’s housing. In 2010 alone, of the 201 housing units approved by the town, only five were single-family detached homes – the rest were apartments, condos or townhomes.

Overall, the American Community Survey found about 23 percent of the town’s housing are apartments, and 6.5 percent are condos. But what’s more telling is of the projects now in the planning process, a full 70 percent (950 units) of the housing units are apartments, a total reversal of the housing makeup that exists now.

Developers clearly think Bethlehem is an attractive place to live, and that there is enough demand for this type of housing to plunk down millions worth of investments. The same can’t be said of standalone homes. Of housing approved by the town but not built since 2006, more than three-quarters, or 176 units, are single-family homes. In other words, developers have the go-ahead to build houses, but would rather put in apartments.

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