Overextended City: Bloomington in the Twilight Zone

By Steve Popolizio

I’m a retired executive for an international humanitarian organization headquartered in the Chicago area.  My wife and I decided to move to Bloomington, where we met as IU grad students, for the culture, the educated community, wonderful natural resources and charming neighborhoods. We have lived here for eight years but have been troubled by the city’s attempts to reconfigure its core residential neighborhoods in ways that would bring controversial and consequential changes. 

Bloomington residents defeated last year, in City Council debate, a proposal to upzone single family neighborhoods. Now the mayor and the city are trying again.

Bloomington presents itself as a place where people aspire to work, raise families, and develop community.  A decade ago the city was often heralded in ratings and surveys as a top place to live, work and retire. 

Lately, I have not been seeing such accolades, so I did a quick online search.

  • Areavibes gives Bloomington a 70/100 rating, noting high crime, poor job prospects and expensive housing.  On liveability, it ranks Bloomington #354 in Indiana! 
  • Niche gives the city an A, but notes crime, jobs and housing as negatives.  It ranks Bloomington more generously at #36 among the best places to live in Indiana.
  • HomeSnacks grades Bloomington 7/10, also noting safety, jobs and affordability as negatives.

If these ratings are credible, Bloomington is moving in the wrong direction.

Eds and Meds

Half of Bloomington’s 85,755 total population is attributed to Indiana University. The city thrives mostly on educational services, health care, tech and hospitality (restaurants, hotels). Its “Eds and Meds” economy provides stability that cities dependent on manufacturing lack. However:

  • Eds and Meds tend to be non-profit and generate limited tax revenues.
  • Health care and education spending skyrocketed in the United States over the past two decades, but has reached the end of its growth cycle.
  • IU’s enrollments have maintained their levels but the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the outlook for future classes. 
  • A drop-off in full-paying foreign students, emergence of low-cost online instruction and projected demographic declines in college-age populations may reduce future enrollments, with serious implications for Bloomington’s housing market. I am seeing a lot of For Rent signs these days.
  • Bloomington’s median income is only $43,693 and its per capita GDP only $36,193 (2016 figures), much lower than comparable college towns. Rising rents and real estate prices have pushed, and will continue to push, non-student residents out.

Indiana population projections researched by IU’s Kelley School of Business (2018) expect Bloomington to grow by about 15% over the next 30 years (2020-2050). That growth translates to forecast annual growth of just one half of one percent – hardly kill-the-fatted-calf growth. 

According to the Kelley School, Bloomington’s growth rate is also expected to slow over the next three decades from declines in fertility rates and smaller net positive migration. Bloomington will comprise an aging (non-student) population, as 20% of Hoosiers will be over 65 by 2030.  We are graying, even if in different shades.


Against this backdrop, how does the City’s “new” zoning plan look? Not very smart.

If the mayor succeeds in rezoning core residential areas, we can expect:

  • Greater neighborhood density with the need for improved infrastructure.
  • Higher rents, driving lower income people other than students to more affordable surrounding towns.
  • Real estate speculation by large developers eager to profit from high rental income. (Time to add REITs to your portfolio?) 

Why is the city, given other options and priorities, pursuing housing policies that will increase density, raise costs and favor developers over residents?

The city vaguely cites climate change, inequity, sprawl (even as it seeks to annex more land), social justice and future growth as reasons.  We share concerns regarding all of these but see no evidence zoning affects any of them in any meaningful way.

My former place of residence, Oak Park IL, also needed to expand. Its population growth was flat and it needed more revenues. Its historic districts barred multi-plex housing.  Hemmed in by Chicago and the other western suburbs, it had nowhere to go except up. 

Many high rise condo buildings loom over its downtown, visible from miles and casting long shadows on its landmark architectural treasures. Formerly a village, it’s now a congested, high-priced, highly taxed, quasi-urban environment.

Bloomington, in contrast, has no such physical restrictions.  It has within its city limits ample vacant land and areas suited for redevelopment. 

The city is overextended and facing a financial shortfall. Its ambitious Trades District has not produced the results anticipated, and COVID-19 has dried up sales tax receipts as well as revenues from the food and beverage tax intended to fund the convention center expansion, now in limbo.

Recently, during a pandemic when people were being locked out of jobs and businesses were closing, the mayor in an act of apparent desperation attempted to pass a county income tax increase and failed.

The only obvious reason for upzoning the city’s core neighborhoods is to increase real estate tax yield for city revenues.

Gone Forever

Bloomington’s established, historic neighborhoods have far greater value to the worth of the city than the city seems to appreciate. Once they are gone, they are gone.

And when they are gone, will older, professional adults, with or without families, want to live in what remains?  Will people from other states choose to move to a city with few, true single family communities?  Will they want to raise families in pricey, urbanized neighborhoods?

If they do, they will be bucking a national trend away from crowded cities to less populated towns and suburbs. 

Bloomington can develop multi-plex housing in designated areas to accommodate the slow rate of growth projected over the next three decades. At the same time it can act to protect and preserve existing traditional and historic neighborhoods. 

New upscale developments such as Renwick have been successful providing different housing types — apartments, townhouses, single family homes — in designated sections within the neighborhood.  People who live there seem happy with the arrangement.

A city that ignores the preferences of its residents won’t keep their support for very long. Students attending IU as residents will always live in Bloomington, even if temporarily. Many come from places where housing costs are much higher, so they might not mind the conditions or the prices. 

But more permanent residents, the people Bloomington depends on just as much, have choices, and they also vote. Sometimes by ballot, sometimes with their feet.

%d bloggers like this: