First, the good news: Building permits and help wanted ads have both been trending upward for the past three months while unemployment insurance claims have been going down, according to the latest issue of the Humboldt Economic Index. These three categories are considered the best indicators of where our local economy is headed (i.e. the right direction). Also, lumber manufacturing increased last month by a whopping 22.5 percent over the previous month.
In fact, after two and a half years of fairly rapid declines, the Humboldt County economy has rebounded nicely since last October. Huzzah.
But look a little closer and it's not all gravy.
We said the three-month trends are good, and they are. But last month in particular...not so good. Building permits declined 29 percent; help wanted ads fell 8 percent.
Month-to-month fluctuations can be just that -- fluctuations. Or they could be signs that we have yet to hit bottom.
Consider the housing market: The median-priced Humboldt County home in January (the most recent month available) was $246,200, according to the Humboldt Association of Realtors. That's the lowest it's been since May 2004. It was also the fourth straight month of declines. Affordability (a measure of how close the typical family is to qualifying for a mortgage on a typical home) stands at 27 percent. That's way better than its mid-bubble nadir of 10 percent but still well below pre-bubble levels, which hovered in the 40s.
(Curious side note: The most expensive homes sold were in McKinleyville, which posted a median price of $337,500 compared to Arcata's $262,500, Eureka's $245,600 and Fortuna's freakishly low $144,250. Humboldt County Association of Realtors bookkeeper Staci Bishop had to quadruple-check that last figure, and she said it likely was just a fluke: Only four homes were listed there last month. Musta been doozies.)
Retail sales and hospitality also declined significantly. HSU Economics Professor Erick Eschker concludes, "despite aggressive government measures, sustained high unemployment, record foreclosures and weak sales continue."
Update: In January, Humboldt County's jobless rate jumped 1.3 percent from the previous month, landing at 12.7 percent, according to information released Wednesday by the North Coast Region of the state's Employment Development Division. That number is still slightly below California's rate of 13.2 percent.