Where Do We Put the New Catalent Workers? It’s a Trick Question

By Peter Dorfman

Local employer Catalent is dangling 1,000 new drug manufacturing jobs in front of Bloomington’s growth-obsessed administration, in exchange for generous tax abatements. Predictably, the employer says “Jump,” and the administration says, “How high?”

It’s tempting to point out that proposing tax abatements worth more than $29 million for a large corporation and then immediately turning around and hitting the rest of us poor suckers up for another local income tax hike (all of this immediately on the heels of the Mayor’s unpopular and still-very-iffy annexation of the suburbs) is a very bad look.

Still, the City Council approved the Catalent request unanimously. That doesn’t guarantee that the jobs are coming — Catalent has made it clear that Bloomington is competing with other locations for this expansion, and the company could easily be won over by another city willing to offer an even bigger bribe. But evidently we’re committed to the proposal.

Of course, this discussion immediately touched off another round of hand-wringing about Bloomington’s housing inventory. Where, advocates are asking, are the new Catalent employees — roughly 200 a year over five years, and their families — supposed to live, in the city and the county?

It’s a trick question. Catalent’s principal Bloomington plant is located within the city limits, on the west side, but at least half of its current employees live outside the city and, in fact, outside Monroe County. There is no reason to assume the new employees (once again, if we even get them) predominantly will want to live in Bloomington, much as we would like to imagine them them happily biking to work — and joining our municipal tax rolls.

Notice the subtext: Everyone who is commenting on this situation seems to assume that these new workers and their families will come to our community from somewhere else. They’re probably right. Monroe County has a small life science industry now, and Catalent could poach some of its new workers from Baxter, Cook or Singota. But most are likely to be reassigned from other Catalent locations around the country, or to be hired by Catalent, from wherever, to fill these professional positions — there is no reason to assume preference will be given to people who are already in Bloomington. That raises interesting questions.

What, actually, would the Catalent expansion do to benefit the community? Certainly, if you run a retail business or restaurant, any population growth can mean more traffic, assuming the new people actually shop or dine in town. There is that. The new jobs are supposed to pay an average of $33 per hour, so these people would have money to spend. But what would the influx do for wages generally? If Catalent adds 900 or 1,000 people to the local workforce at $33 per hour, area median income will go up — that’s a hefty wage by Bloomington standards. But who does that benefit if the jobs don’t match up well with the city’s labor pool, and those workers do come mainly from elsewhere?

Much of the perception that Bloomington is short of housing is really based on the city’s scarcity of affordable housing. Bloomington actually has plenty of roofs for people to shelter under; our housing is only expensive by Indiana standards. To workers who might be moving in from the coasts, Bloomington’s housing is a bargain.

For people who have lived and worked here for many years, our housing seems expensive because a large percentage of them work for one of the lowest-paying universities in the Big Ten, or in subsistence-wage service jobs. Are they candidates for the new jobs Catalent proposes to create? Not many. So the benefits for Bloomington’s current workforce are not as obvious as the deal’s supporters would have you believe — especially if a high percentage of the new employees don’t even choose to live in Bloomington.

So, should we be worrying about whether we have the housing capacity to absorb the Catalent expansion? The question sparked a mildly testy exchange at the February 16 Council meeting, between Alex Crowley, the city’s director of economic and sustainable development, and District 1 Council Member Kate Rosenbarger.

Crowley suggested this wouldn’t be a big issue because Bloomington has built or authorized a lot of new student housing developments, and this will funnel students from the city’s residential neighborhoods into new highrises, freeing up houses for working people.

But what Rosenbarger heard was a suggestion that the new Catalent workers could move into the new duplexes that would be allowed by last year’s revision of the Unified Development Ordinance, which authorized the addition of new plexes in formerly single-family neighborhoods.

Rosenbarger was one of the new Council ideologues who architected that UDO revision, and then agreed to a series of limits on the pace of new duplex development to placate the many citizens who strongly objected to the upzoning of core neighborhoods. Rosenbarger scoffed that limited duplex conversions would never allow the city to accommodate the Catalent expansion in what she termed “our most sought-after neighborhoods across the city.”

That wasn’t what Crowley had meant to begin with, and he quickly clarified the point. It’s all moot anyway if most of the Catalent employees buy houses in Ellettsville, or Bedford, or in Greene County. But it’s worth pondering Rosenbarger’s reflexive reference to the plexes (or proposed plexes — since August, when the UDO revision went into effect, no one has applied to build one in a former single-family neighborhood).

This seems an appropriate time to reiterate something heard frequently during the 2020 upzoning debate. I don’t put words in people’s mouths, and I’ve never been impressed with rhetoric that appeals to “Bloomington values.” But I think I can generalize a bit about the attitudes of people on the city’s densely populated west side, where I live.

If we further densify core neighborhoods by adding duplexes, current residents of those neighborhoods are going to give up something they value. Renters included. They’re going to make a quality of life sacrifice.

I believe west side residents are generous in spirit, and would be willing to make that sacrifice — if they saw that someone less privileged than themselves would benefit from it in some practical, measurable way. The problem is, the arguments used to promote the upzoning — that adding more market rate apartments in areas like the Near West Side or Prospect Hill would make any easier or cheaper for lower-income people to live in these neighborhoods — never held water, when they were questioned.

By the time the City Council narrowly approved the upzoning, there were still advocates clinging to these discredited contentions. But the administration’s planners had given up and retreated to a position that the upzoning proposal wasn’t about housing affordability at all. It was about some ill-defined benefit referred to as “housing choice.”

A substantial majority of citizens who turned out for Plan Commission and Council deliberations were opposed to the upzoning. The Hamilton administration pushed the measure through anyway, not because it had in any sense won the argument, but simply because they had the votes in the Council, if only just.

The question of housing the new Catalent workers is likely to become an issue in this year’s Monroe County Commissioners’ elections. The county Plan Commission has turned down several recent applications for large multifamily developments. This has been spun, by the same ideologues who have pushed for years for densification of the county, using the same rhetoric pro-density advocates used in the city, into an argument that county commissioners aren’t doing enough to accommodate population growth. Expect that argument to re-emerge as an accusation that the county needs to pull its weight in providing housing for the Catalent 1,000.

Here’s the problem, though: The residents of Bloomington’s west side neighborhoods might have felt they owed a debt of charity to working class or poor people who needed homes and wanted to live in the core, but they saw through the thin rationalization that the upzoning would accomplish anything like that. Those same residents did not agree that they had any obligation to shove over and make room for comfortably middle class white people who could easily afford core neighborhood rentals — like the new Catalent employees.

The core neighborhoods are already substantially denser than any area outside the city’s limits. But fundamentally, why couldn’t county residents make the same argument for themselves? What sacrifice do they owe the new Catalent employees?

No, I am not interested in the suggestion that the new Catalent jobs, if they materialize, provide a pretext for reopening the discussion of densifying the core neighborhoods or, for that matter, Monroe County.

I’m confident that a large majority of core neighborhood residents would object to still more densification. At least, though, we’re clear about whether densification was ever about workforce or affordable housing. The Catalent rationalization demonstrates that it isn’t and never was.

Council Member Rosenbarger has sounded embittered about the limits she agreed to on duplex development, on more than one recent occasion. I’ll close here by suggesting she reflect a bit on what she was elected to do: Represent the interests of constituents in Council District 1.

We have geographic districts in recognition of the fact that our interests are distinct from those of people who live in Council District 3, or 6. Kate Rosenbarger has subordinated the interests of her own district constituents to her personal, ideological agenda, which is aligned with the Hamilton administration’s growth crusade — possibly under the illusion that most of us wanted the core neighborhoods we live in upzoned and densified when she was elected to represent us. Is that illegal or unconstitutional? Of course not. But I suspect if densification is a front-burner issue in the 2023 citywide election, it won’t go well for her.

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