Multicar-garage homes and nice lawns are what Lakewood wants to attract

Tucked down a dead end road at the north end of Lakewood lies the Creek Ridge development. Its well maintained two- and three-car garage homes with manicured lawns represent the type of neighborhood that city leaders like to see.

Phil Ferrell was one of the first homeowners to move into Creek Ridge in 1988, when it was still part of unincorporated Pierce County. As a young husband with a growing family, he found what he was looking for.

Today, Ferrell has recently retired from the Tacoma Fire Department, his twins have families of their own, and he remains proud of his neighborhood.

“We’re a hidden gem,” said Ferrell, president of the Creek Ridge homeowners association.

They’re also a rare gem. Lakewood, known for old apartment buildings on one end of the income spectrum and expensive waterfront homes on the other, is taking steps to attract that most precious of demographics: a middle class.

Today, only 11 percent of homes in the city fall into the middle-income price range.

Aware of the disparity, officials are looking to appeal to developers who will build moderately priced, single-family homes in existing neighborhoods and families who want to settle down there.

“In many ways what Lakewood’s trying to do is encourage the establishment of a middle class, which is pretty hard to do,” said David Bugher, Lakewood’s assistant city manager and community development director.

Growing the middle class brings stability and engagement, said Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson.

“Those are the people who go to work every day, who pay taxes, who shop in the stores in order to support the small businesses that create jobs,” he said. “You have to have that balance in the community for long-term health.”

An analysis of Lakewood’s housing shows that balance is off. Sixty-seven percent of its housing is classified as low-income, while 25 percent is high-end valued at $500,000 or more.

To turn that around, the city’s goal is for 65 percent of the housing built in the next 16 years to appeal to the middle class. It also hopes 10 percent of the new homes will be high-end.

It will focus on single-family homes instead of multifamily, which dominate the city’s residential landscape.

Years of concern about too many apartment complexes helped fuel the movement to make Lakewood its own city two decades ago. But despite incorporation in 1996, Lakewood still has the highest percentage of multifamily housing units in all of Pierce County.

Persuading home developers to come to Lakewood may not be easy. Housing industry professionals at a forum hosted by the city last week identified some of the challenges.

One is a lack of vacant land. Instead of large-scale housing projects, Lakewood will have to rely on developers willing to build in infill neighborhoods, often putting up a few homes at a time.

That’s what University Place developer Jason Mykland recently did in Lakewood’s Oakbrook neighborhood. He jumped at the chance to invest in an established middle-class neighborhood — a rare opportunity in Lakewood.

“There are areas that are very low in price and then there’s some that are more expensive than view lots in Tacoma,” Mykland said of the disparity.

He’s confident a home in the mid-$400,000 range will appeal to second- or third-time homebuyers.

But is Lakewood appealing to first-time homebuyers and families with children?

Housing industry professionals say perceptions that Lakewood is unsafe and has poor schools have kept this demographic away.

“To attract that middle-class home buyer, something has to be done about the schools,” said Todd Britsch, president and principal of Bothell-based consulting firm New Home Trends Inc. Britsch spoke at the May 15 forum.

“It’s a beautiful city, and people want to live here, but people with kids are going to be wary,” he said.

Buyers with children — many who make up the middle class — move because of school districts, said Windermere real estate agent Steve Sloboda.

He said his experience with middle-income clients is they look to UP to buy a home if they have kids. His clients choosing Lakewood tend to be empty nesters, people without children, or military families who don’t know the area, he said.

Clover Park School District spokeswoman Kim Prentice said the district has proved in recent years the negative public opinion is an unfair characterization.

“Every other year the school district does a community perception survey,” she said. “We saw significant improvement in the perception of respondents saying our schools are improving. We’re pretty proud of that.”

The city will continue to work on improving its reputation and connecting with developers to encourage redevelopment, Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield said.

“A lot of the issues that are talked about — schools, public safety — don’t exist anymore,” Caulfield said. “Perhaps that’s who and what we were 20 years ago.”

Multifamily housing in Pierce County

Lakewood wants to diversify its housing stock, and it’s easy to see why when you see its percentage of residences that are apartments or other multifamily units, compared to elsewhere in Pierce County.

Lakewood44 percent

Puyallup40 percent

Gig Harbor39 percent

University Place37 percent

Sumner36 percent

Tacoma35 percent

Steilacoom29 percent

DuPont26 percent

Bonney Lake8 percent

Incorporated Pierce County35 percent

Unincorporated Pierce County11 percent

Total Pierce County25 percent

Source: U.S. Census