Congratulations! Bellingham has just produced another survey of homeowners and seniors. What is wrong with this picture?
Two years ago I wrote an article here entitled, “The Bellingham Residential Survey Makes My Head Hurt.” I was just getting over that headache when I received notice that yet another residential survey has emerged (Residential Survey Report 2018) and now my teeth itch. The city is attempting, yet again, to pass off on the public a survey conducted with questionable scientific rigor and, therefore, of limited or no value. Why? 79% of the self-selected respondents were homeowners and most of them were 55 years old or older. The survey was utterly devoid of randomness necessary to provide results in which one might have a mote of confidence. If you want to know what old-fart homeowners think, dig in, because this is kind of survey! If you are a renter, a young adult, homeless, or just did not happen to hear about the survey, your opinion effectively was not sought.
Renters accounted for approximately 20% of the self-selected respondents while renters make up over half the population. Only 7% of those who took the survey were between the ages of 19 and 30. Overall, there were only 1,295 total respondents (Did I mention they self-selected?) from a population of about 88,500. According to the last census about 16% of the population was under 18 so the base number of all possible adult respondents is about 75,000. That indicates, charitably, that the response rate was <2% (self-selected - not random).
Here are the basics of the bases of the survey. Judge for yourself.
City of Bellingham Residential Survey Report, 2018 Executive Summary
The results from the 2018 City of Bellingham Residential Survey provide important insights about residents’ opinions regarding City services and community priorities. While the quality of life in Bellingham is very high, there are notable trends regarding challenges facing the community and the City. We note the following key points and overall trends in reviewing the research.
79 percent of households responding to the survey classify themselves as homeowners, and approximately 20 percent classify themselves as renters. The US Census Bureau estimates that within Bellingham 45% of housing units are occupied by the owner, indicating that the response rate for renters has remained excessively low as in previous studies. The 2018 study took efforts to increase rental responses and was able to raise the response rate for renters by 5% from the 2016 study.
The majority (51 percent) of respondents identify as female, 43 percent identify as male, and 1 percent identify as neither male nor female. 5 percent of respondents prefer not to report their gender.
There are respondents from every neighborhood in the city of Bellingham. Some neighborhoods account for very large rates of response (Columbia, Samish, and South Hill), while others only accounted for a handful (Meridian and Irongate). However, these response rates tend to correspond with the population density in those areas. For the most part, the survey respondents are seasoned residents of the Bellingham –almost 70 percent of respondents have lived here for more than 10 years.
25 percent of respondents report having children in their household under the age of 18. This could include not only parents, but also guardians of minors and other household arrangements. More than half (54 percent) of survey respondents are at least 55 years old. 7 percent of responses came from people between 18 and 30 years old. This is disproportionate to Bellingham’s overall demographics –as of 2010, only 24 percent of the total population is 55 or older, and more than 26 percent fall into the 20-29 age range (US Census, 2010). Historically, the respondents of this year’s survey have higher incomes than those in previous surveys. 19 percent of respondents report annual household incomes less than $35,000, 34 percent report household incomes between $35,000and $75,000, and 47 percent report household incomes over $75,000.
Total sample: n = 1295 Homeowners: n = 1026 Renters: n = 265
Two years ago I challenged the authors at Western Washington University about the 2016 survey and received this reply from Dr. Hart Hodges, in part (the full reply can be found in my previous article):
“A relatively high percentage of respondents are homeowners and have lived in Bellingham for a number of years. I suspect James [McCafferty] highlighted those findings to make sure the reader knows the results of the survey are not necessarily accurate (meaning they do not necessarily reflect the views of the population as a whole).” [NB: bolding and link are mine]
One of the comments I received on my 2016 article panned that year’s survey in this manner:
“I saw your posting in NW Citizen in regards to the City’s Residential Survey. This is an area of specialization for my firm and I agree with many of your comments. Regarding the margin of error they cite. I can’t even figure out where that number would come from: standard number for that sample size would be + or - 2.8%. Their response rate is actually quite low and as you point out not representative of the resident population.”
So why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Predictably, as in the past, city mangers and City Council members will go to the survey and select charts and statistics to bolster their arguments for the goat-rope du jour. There will be no critical thought of the questionable bases and biases of the data, or that it is a survey stacked with respondents who are homeowners and old.