- Matt Mignanelli
Kelly Brigham has lived her entire life in Burlington's only mobile home park. The resident-owned North Avenue Cooperative has 114 homes, including Brigham's gray single-wide, purchased with an inheritance from her late mother in 2016. At the time, the city assessed the home for $69,300.
Brigham, 54, has since paved her parking lot, installed a privacy fence and added an entrance ramp. Still, when the results of Burlington's first citywide reassessment in 16 years arrived in mid-April, she was one of hundreds of homeowners who gasped at the numbers on their notices. The valuation of Brigham's home had more than doubled, rising by nearly $100,000. She wasn't alone: Around her neighborhood, the average mobile home had doubled in value, according to the city's data. Some valuations had more than tripled.
Park residents, who are among the city's lowest-income homeowners, worry that the new values will mean higher taxes on the city bills they'll receive in July.
"I thought I would be here for the rest of my life, but I'm not sure I can afford it," Brigham told Seven Days soon after receiving her notice. "I don't have anything else."
Brigham's panic subsided a bit the following week when a city-hired firm announced it had overvalued the park's homes. Several residents had already appealed their valuations to the city, arguing that a double-wide would never sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The city is recalculating the values this week.
- Luke Awtry
- Kelly Brigham
Other Queen City neighborhoods and homeowners are less likely to see a blanket reconsideration of their newly assessed values, which have been driven up by a hot housing market. The last citywide revaluation happened in 2005, though some properties have been reassessed in the years since. A Seven Days analysis of property data the city provided in mid-April found that the average value of a single-family home — the most prevalent property type in Burlington — has risen to nearly $450,000. That's an average increase of 56 percent.
Of single-family homes, the median value, which helps eliminate outliers on the higher and lower ends of the spectrum, is now $380,200. Before the reassessment, that figure was $237,250.
Seasonal homes, duplexes and apartment buildings citywide appreciated even more than single-family homes, the analysis shows. The data did not include about 400 tax-exempt properties, including churches, the University of Vermont and the University of Vermont Medical Center.
The sharpest rise in single-family home values occurred in Ward 5 in the city's South End and in Ward 3, which contains some of downtown and the Old North End. The average Ward 5 home was valued at $518,200 — a 65 percent increase. The new median value: $448,700.
Burlington's highest-valued single-family home, a mansion on 17 acres off South Prospect Street, nearly doubled in value, from about $3.5 million to $6.4 million. Even before the reassessment, taxes on the eight-bedroom, seven full-bath and four half-bath Colonial estate came in at about $108,000. Its owner, philanthropist and racehorse breeder Amy Tarrant, could not be reached for comment.
How Property Values Changed Across Burlington
When zoomed out, this map uses color and three dimensional height to show the average percent increase in assessed value across the wards of Burlington. When zoomed to the city level, different colors show how assessed value has changed across all areas of Burlington. When zoomed to the neighborhood level, the map uses colors to show the percent change in assessed value for each property included in our analysis.
Data analysis and visualization: Sophia Hodson. Source: City of Burlington
On the opposite end of the spectrum, just 66 of the city's 10,400 properties lost value since they were last assessed. Many of those were commercial properties. The Burlington Country Club, for example, dropped nearly $1 million in assessed value. Hotels, too, saw marked decreases, losing a combined $13.3 million in valuation, largely due to travel restrictions and lost business during the coronavirus pandemic, according to City Assessor John Vickery.
The total value of all taxable property in Burlington increased by 61 percent. But Vickery says that preliminary number will likely shrink substantially — to closer to 40 percent — after appeals and other adjustments. The final grand list will be calculated in late June.
The potential drop seems steep, but Vickery said a single change in a commercial property's valuation can reduce the grand list by millions of dollars. The developers of the unbuilt CityPlace Burlington project, for example, have already appealed multiple properties they own downtown, including the infamous "pit," according to Vickery.
The coming reductions are unlikely to dramatically alter most homeowners' property values. And if Vickery's estimate is correct, and if the city budget is the same as the current one, people whose property values increased by more than 40 percent would pay higher taxes this coming fiscal year; those with smaller increases would pay less.
Property owners won't know their tax bill until both the municipal and education tax rates are set in June. Both rates will be lower to compensate for higher property values, as the city charter dictates that the citywide reassessment be revenue neutral.
This year's process did not involve indoor visits to most residential properties. Instead, the city's consultant, Tyler Technologies, reviewed real estate sales information from 2017 through early 2021, permit histories and other city data to calculate valuations using an algorithm that also considered location, nearby schools and other amenities. Assessors reviewed high-definition photos, taken from the ground and the air, of all homes, and only entered residences upon request. They inspected every commercial property in the city, Vickery said.
"The metric here is for fairness and equity," Vickery said. "We want people to help us make corrections."
The new assessments have been the talk of the town, with residents trading horror stories about their new valuations and the steps they have taken to try to correct errors made by the city or Tyler Technologies. Others have pestered their city councilors or passed around spreadsheets detailing the winners and losers, noting that some high-profile names — including Mayor Miro Weinberger, whose Hill Section home went up just 29 percent — would likely see their taxes decrease.
A lack of communication and transparency from the city has been frustrating, said Ben Katz, a Hill Section homeowner who has had two appeal hearings to try to lower his valuation.
"When you're talking about fair and equitable — this is a small community; our neighborhoods are really close," Katz said. "And you don't want to look at a neighbor and be like, 'Why are you paying $5,500 less in taxes a year for the same house?'"
Appeals are a normal part of the process, and Vickery said the city encouraged property owners to request a hearing if something didn't look right. About 18 percent, or 1,884 properties, were appealed by the April 30 deadline. Vickery, who has been the city's assessor for 19 years, said the number of appeals this year was more than in 2005, though he did not provide the exact number.
For many homeowners, this year's assessment simply recognizes the fact that their homes are worth more because of Burlington's desirability. For years, demand for housing in the city — a university town that is the state's economic center and a tourist destination — has outpaced its supply.
The pandemic, coupled with low interest rates and a strong stock market, has only tightened the squeeze. In 2020, Burlington homes sold after being listed an average of 32 days, a rate twice as fast as the average northwest Vermont home, according to a market report from Coldwell Banker earlier this year.
The upward pressure on home prices has been partly driven by out-of-state buyers who flocked to Vermont during the pandemic, scooping up $1.43 billion worth of Green Mountain State property, a report from the Vermont Center for Geographic Information shows. Sales to non-Vermonters jumped 38 percent between 2019 and 2020, exacerbating problems with supply that have plagued the state and, to a greater degree, Chittenden County.
Burlington by Property Type
This map colors each property considered in our analysis by its land use code assigned by the city.
Data analysis and visualization: Sophia Hodson. Source: City of Burlington
New construction isn't keeping pace with demand, according to Staige Davis, the president of South Burlington-based Four Seasons Sotheby's International Realty, the state's highest-volume brokerage. And many Vermont residents aren't moving — in-state, anyway — because the market is too tight. Instead, they're staying in their homes and planning renovations or other upgrades, which in turn has raised prices on goods such as lumber and made new appliances hard to find.
Contractors are busy — as is Davis' firm, which assisted sellers and buyers on $1.4 billion in transactions across Vermont and New Hampshire last year. Most listings now attract multiple offers, Davis said; some folks are sending the sellers "love letters" to explain why they deserve the home, a practice Davis doesn't endorse.
"It's been crazy," he said.
Each year, the state reviews three years of property sales data to determine each towns' common level of appraisal, a number that compares assessed values to market prices to determine whether a town is contributing enough to the state education fund. A single year of hot sales could be just a blip in the state's calculations. But if prices continue to skyrocket, they could knock home values out of whack and force a municipality to reassess, said Casey Michael O'Hara, program director for the Vermont Department of Taxes' Division of Property Valuation and Review.
The state steps in whenever home values in a community dip below 85 percent or above 115 percent of their fair market value. Burlington's common level of appraisal was 74.77 percent before its revaluation, making it one of the most under-assessed cities in the state. South Burlington recently underwent a reassessment, too.
Vickery, the city assessor, acknowledged that the pandemic drove residential valuations higher and depressed some commercial buildings' worth. Both property types could theoretically be reassessed in the coming years if their respective markets changed substantially, he said.
But, he noted, "this is what the market is telling us today."
- Luke Awtry
- Dave Davidson
Vickery seemed confident that Burlington's inflated home market is here to stay. The last time there was a nationwide housing bubble, in the lead-up to the Great Recession of 2008, Burlington's balloon never really popped, he noted.
In any case, the findings should not overly burden many of those whose assessments have increased, he said, which he described as "just resetting the equity."
Those with spikes in value "should be thankful that their valuation has increased their property value, because it can sell for more," Vickery said. "They've been underpaying [taxes]. And the folks that have had a more modest increase technically have been subsidizing the other folks."
That's little consolation to Dave Davidson, a real estate agent whose Pitkin Street home increased in value by 155 percent. Given the number of properties that appreciated, and significantly, he's struggling to determine whose taxes wouldn't go up.
"It's just unfathomable to me — I can't figure out a way the math works," he said. "It just seems, for all of these comforting reassurances that it's somehow making it more equitable, all it really seems to be doing is favoring people who have tremendous disposable income that don't really have to think about these things."
He continued, "Like it's just some sort of game where [officials] can pat themselves on the back that, you know, 'Oh, we made it more equitable.' But, like, how? For who? Did they make it more equitable by making it more expensive for the low-income and less expensive for the high-income?"
To better understand the effects that Davidson and other property owners are worried about, Seven Days analyzed city data to identify reassessment hot spots and talked with property owners across the city — in low- and middle-income neighborhoods, along a busy retail and restaurant corridor, and in a secluded community of summer homes.
Old North Enders
- Luke Awtry
- Mary Manghis and Glenn Eames
As redeveloper Stu McGowan's family had dinner one night in 2006, one of his daughters, who was home for college, kept looking out the window of their Old North End home with a puzzled look on her face.
Finally, she burst out, "What the hell is going on with all of these people jogging in my neighborhood?"
A demographic shift was under way in the working-class bastion, one that has only accelerated in the 15 years since. Single-family homes in Ward 3 are now valued at an average of 70 percent more than when they were last assessed. In Ward 2, the increase was about 60 percent.
Historically, the Old North End has been a landing spot for the city's immigrant communities. French Canadians flocked there, as did Eastern European Jews, who created a "Little Jerusalem" many decades ago. Some owned stores along North Street, which is now dotted with Southeast Asian markets operated by New Americans who arrived after Burlington became a refugee resettlement community in 1980.
McGowan and his wife, Joan Watson, raised their kids at their Intervale Avenue home, where they still live. Stu and Joan considered themselves pioneers when they moved to the neighborhood in the late 1980s. It was a working-class and affordable place; the couple had college degrees, unlike most of their neighbors. Abandoned homes blighted some streets. The area was considered unsafe and drug-ridden; living there carried a stigma.
"What they did not have," McGowan said, referring to his kids, "what nobody in this neighborhood had, was any social capital at all. If you ever told anybody you were from the Old North End, you would be immediately shut out of everything."
Glenn Eames remembers the ribbing he received in 1991 when he told some cop friends that he and his wife had bought a home on Murray Street.
"They were like, 'You're crazy for moving into that part of town,'" said Eames, a former partner in outdoor gear store Skirack. He later started the Old Spokes Home bike shop.
He and his wife, Mary Manghis, paid about $85,000 for their three-bedroom house.
"We liked the neighborhood. We liked the house," Eames said. "And it was an opportunity. This is what we could afford."
Affordability drew the next wave of newcomers in the late 1990s, according to McGowan. Many were artists drawn to "a great neighborhood with cheap housing" who were willing to live with "leaky faucets or whatever" because they weren't making much money.
McGowan, an independent video producer at the time, began buying and rehabbing rental properties in the neighborhood around 2000. What started with a building or two turned into 15 that contained 30 total units by the time a citywide reassessment rolled around in 2005. McGowan was shocked when his tax bill increased by $80,000.
He had — and still has — a policy of not raising rents for current tenants. Rather than break that promise in 2005, McGowan said he went on a building-buying spree. His empire of houses that he paints in neon-bright colors now numbers nearly 30 properties with approximately 80 units.
"If I didn't expand and buy more, I would have gone bankrupt real fast," he said.
The most recent tide of new residents started arriving around 2005. Many were millennials just out of college "who craved what the Old North End was," McGowan said.
"A real neighborhood, real community, real cool corner stores, really cool people," McGowan said. "You know, it was a sea change in attitude. And it wasn't just that they had lower rents, but they wanted to be able to walk or bike downtown. They wanted to rub shoulders with people of color and poor people. They wanted that, whereas in the past, nobody wanted that."
McGowan despises the G-word — gentrification. Instead, he calls the neighborhood changes "diversification." New businesses soon followed the new residents. North Winooski Avenue, once lined with empty commercial spaces, became hot. The thoroughfare is now home to some of the city's most popular restaurants, which serve cuisines from around the world and draw people from Burlington and beyond.
Eames' reassessment reflects the neighborhood's recent revival: The city valued his Murray Street home at $422,200, a 111 percent increase from the $200,000 assessment in 2005. Using a city calculator that estimates taxes for next year, Eames found that his bill would rise about $3,000, to more than $9,000.
Eames, 68, and his wife are retired and on a fixed income. They worry about the impact the reassessment could have on their finances.
"It's not like we have an opportunity here to renovate and rent a portion of it to offset any tax increases or whatever," he said.
He also worries about his neighbors, some of whom have lived in the area longer and would be less able to afford an increase. And he said he worries about the future of the city, too.
"I don't see how people are going to be able to afford to live here in Burlington, to be able to buy, and then be able to afford the taxes," Eames said. While he and his wife love living in Burlington, Eames said, who would move in if they left?
"Take a young family in their mid-thirties: What sort of income would you have to generate to be able to afford paying the taxes to live here?"
In the 1970s, property owners began turning the Old North End's single-family homes into duplexes or multiunit apartment houses, making the neighborhood into a renters' haven.
The area is now home to about 1,310 rental properties, nearly 42 percent of all such properties in the city. Rental properties in Ward 3 went up in assessed value by about 72 percent; in Ward 2, about 68 percent.
Some worry those increases will mean higher taxes — and higher rents.
"That's the most likely outcome," said City Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3), who is interim coordinator for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
Landlords "may be able to keep rents from increasing very much until some big cost hits them," he added. "By and large, most of them will pass that cost on to tenants."
Burlington landlord Mark Porter, who owns 26 units, says he won't hesitate to raise rents if his taxes go up dramatically — and he worries they might. Porter spent about $900,000 on an 18-unit apartment building at 71-73 Elmwood Avenue in 2018, when it was assessed at $852,700. Three years later, the property is valued at $1.8 million. Porter has appealed the valuation.
"No decrease in property tax rates is going to lower this below what [I was] currently paying," he said, adding, "If there's an increase, I would just have to raise the rents accordingly."
Porter said he absorbs other annual costs, such as the heating bill, without raising tenants' rents. Even when taxes go up, Porter said he considers whether collecting more rent would be worth losing a good tenant. But now that he's retired, Porter said he depends more on his rental income.
Renter Rachel Cronin said she'd understand if her landlord raised the rent for her one-bedroom apartment on Canfield Street in the Old North End — especially since the property's valuation nearly doubled. While she could handle a moderate increase, she is concerned that lower-income renters in her neighborhood may struggle.
"In one way it feels fair: This property should not be assessed at that low amount given what everything else sells for in Burlington," Cronin said. "But on the other hand, it's not gonna be the landlords that pay this; it's gonna be the renters. And that sucks."
Cronin, who works at the University of Vermont, has rented in Burlington since 2010 but has been house-hunting since last summer. Though she'd like to buy in the Queen City, Cronin's recent searches yielded disappointing results: A two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse-style home in Burlington's South End is listed for $459,000; an 800-square-foot condo on Main Street is the same size as Cronin's apartment but would cost her more per month.
Cronin has even made offers well above asking price on homes in Chittenden County's outer suburbs. "It's just not enough," she said. "People are coming in with cash offers for these tiny places ... It's bonkers."
Laine Margolin, Cronin's real estate agent, said she's seen an influx of buyers who opt to skip the typical bank appraisal and home inspection to win bidding wars. They often pay in cash, pricing out her clients, who have offered up to $100,000 over the asking price just to compete.
"I'm telling my buyers, 'Really, it comes down to how badly you want it, more than what I think it's actually worth,' which is a strange thing to say to somebody," she said. "That is pretty much the conversation I'm having, seemingly weekly."
Cronin's difficulty finding a home isn't unique, according to Maura Collins, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, which finances mortgages and provides down payment assistance to first-time buyers. Not only are home prices escalating, but so are rents, Collins said, making it difficult for renters to save up for a home. Compounding the issue is the lack of housing stock, specifically starter homes in Cronin's price range, Collins said. And buyers making cash offers aren't helping, either.
One factor that's not to blame? The reassessments, Collins argues.
"The real concern here is the lack of affordable housing, the chronic shortage of units and the limited incomes that people have to be able to live near where they work," she said. "This issue is just shining a light on a market reality."
Collins commended the steps Burlington has already taken to combat these trends, such as its inclusionary zoning policy, which requires that developers build a certain percentage of "affordable" units in larger developments. She also applauded zoning changes that streamlined the process for building accessory dwelling units — small apartments within a home or on the same lot as a single-family dwelling — and that did away with parking minimums in some areas of the city, reducing the cost to develop more housing.
Mayor Weinberger said he looks forward to discussing other policies this summer at the city's second housing summit. The mayor, who was a housing developer before taking office, said he's interested in the Missing Middle Housing initiative being championed by the AARP, a national nonprofit that advocates for senior citizens. The effort seeks to boost the creation of small- to midsize multiunit homes for middle-income buyers in walkable neighborhoods.
While some residents may fear that new zoning rules would degrade their neighborhood's character, Weinberger said the alternative is far worse.
"More and more middle-class and lower-income households are being priced entirely out of Burlington," he said, adding that it would be worthwhile to explore other housing models "if we are going to seriously expand homeownership opportunities in Burlington and do something about these dramatic upward market pressures."
For years, Champlain Housing Trust has bought, rehabbed and resold affordable housing stock, using programs that make it easier for people with lower incomes to purchase their own homes.
Under one program, the trust makes the down payment for a buyer, who is then responsible for the mortgage. When that buyer is ready to sell, they keep only a quarter of the appreciated value; the rest goes toward the down payment for the next buyer. In some cases, the trust owns the land the homes sit on and remains on the deed for each transaction to ensure the long-term affordability.
Champlain Housing Trust has such resale restrictions on 243 homes in the city, including 87 in the Old North End and 58 in the South End. Fourteen percent are owned by people of color, who have purchased 25 percent of trust homes sold during the last five years, according to Chris Donnelly, the nonprofit's spokesperson.
Several homeowners have called with concerns about the new valuation, Donnelly said.
"We've been advising people how to appeal, but we're not representing anybody," he said.
State law limits taxing this affordable housing stock to just 60 to 70 percent of its assessed value. Despite those limits, the homeowners could receive a much bigger tax bill after the recent reassessment, which valued some of these trust-acquired properties at many times their prior worth.
That's what happened to Davidson, the Pitkin Street resident. He could not have afforded his place without assistance when he bought it in 2006, he said. The trust program put about $80,000 toward the $185,000 purchase price of the three-bedroom half of a duplex. The city last assessed it at about $91,000. This year, the assessment jumped to $232,600 — a 155 percent increase.
While he understands paying his fair share, Davidson worries that what he gets for his taxes is losing value. F-35 jets scream by overhead; the city high school his daughter attended is now shuttered and could be torn down while she attends class in a former Macy's building.
"There's nothing that anchors real estate value like a good school district," he said. "So when word gets out that we don't have a functional high school and real estate values start plummeting, then we're locked into this rosy, high-peak estimation of our value. There's a really dangerous mismatch there."
Davidson is concerned he'll have to pay hundreds, maybe thousands, more in taxes. He didn't file an appeal, though, because he doesn't think he has a case, "other than, 'It's not fair.'"
"The city councilors are quick to reassure us that, 'Oh, it's revenue neutral,' which really is not the same thing as saying your taxes will not increase," Davidson said. "What matters most to the homeowner is, What am I going to be paying? How am I going to adjust to this discomfort?"
The city, however, would argue that Davidson had been underpaying his taxes for years. He bought the place for twice the amount the city had valued it, meaning he was paying taxes based on an assessment that was lower than his home's worth.
"Will it force me out? I don't know; it's definitely taking a loss, and it definitely feels not good," Davidson said. "Is it gonna break me? I don't want to admit that anything is gonna break me. But, you know, eventually you get a little fed up."
Trouble in Paradise
- Luke Awtry
- Carolyn Phelps Little and Tom Little
Starr Farm Beach is a world apart from the affordability struggle. Tucked away on Burlington's lakefront in the New North End, it's a neighborhood few know exists.
Thirty-four seasonal second homes, or camps, line the shore. Built around the turn of the 20th century on land owned by the late Burlington entrepreneur John J. Flynn, the properties were summer escapes for local working-class families.
While other camps on the city's Lake Champlain shoreline have been torn down and replaced with year-round homes, Starr Farm Beach has remained seasonal, opening when the city turns on the water in late April and closing in the first week of November, according to Bill Parkhill, the president of the community's homeowners' association, who has spent summers there since he was a boy in the 1950s.
That was one reason the owners were shocked when they received their reassessment notices. Their values jumped by an average of 488 percent — or about $434,612 compared to previous assessments.
During the intervening years, some homes were torn down and replaced or underwent significant renovations, meaning their owners could expect higher assessed values. But Tom Little, whose grandfather bought their family's camp in 1929, said he did little but paint and keep the place up. The property he and his sister own increased in value by 1,200 percent, from $43,700 to $571,900 this year — a jump of $528,200.
He and other owners also pay extra taxes on the structures because they are all second homes.
"People were stunned to get the bills," said Little, an attorney and former state legislator who lives in Shelburne. He has also represented Seven Days in legal matters.
Homeowners' assessments are calculated purely on the value of their houses, according to Parkhill. The association leases the land itself, plus common areas, from Flynn's estate and pays a separate tax bill on that — about $155,000 last year, Parkhill said.
The reassessment lowered the land tax burden and raised the values of the structures themselves. The previous valuation on the association's land was about $5.1 million; the latest is $1.1 million, a decrease of about 74.8 percent.
Vickery said the decrease in the land value takes into account the fact that it is subject to the lease and therefore undevelopable for another seven decades or so. The camps, meanwhile, are very valuable, according to Vickery.
The city compared them to others similarly situated around the state, including some in Colchester. And there are comparable sales on Starr Farm Beach itself. In the last three years, one home sold for about $550,000, and another for about $700,000. One four-bedroom, two-bathroom camp has been on the market for about a year, with an asking price of $425,000. It was previously assessed at $57,600, though the 2021 revaluation bumped it up to about $395,000.
"We noticed that our assessments were very low, and we want to correct that problem," Vickery said. "We're supposed to appraise them for what they'd sell for. I think we've done that — there'll probably be a couple of corrections — but I think overall we've done that."
Thirty-two Starr Farm Beach property owners requested appeals, Vickery said. The city now plans to take another look at the neighborhood's data to ensure the new valuations are accurate, he added.
Pat Robins, a philanthropist and retired Burlington businessman, worries the new tax hits could force families out of the community. Many "are pretty average folks" and not multimillionaires, he said.
Robins' grandfather built a camp in 1922, and Robins, now 82, bought a place of his own — Flynn's original camp — in 1972 for $17,500. It's now valued at $782,700.
He can weather the increase. Others, some of whom go back several generations, cannot.
"This will break it up. That's the problem," Robins said. "Not this year, but over the next few years ... I'd hate to see that. I think it's a wonderful institution."
- Luke Awtry
- Kathryn and Erik Trinkaus
Perhaps no Burlington neighborhood has changed more in the last 15 years than the Pine Street corridor.
Once an industrial area that became a haven for artists, it's now a thriving strip, home to one of the city's biggest employers — Dealer.com — stores, restaurants, art galleries and several breweries. The city's well-loved farmers market sets up in a Pine Street parking lot each summer Saturday. Cementing its status as a complete neighborhood? City Market, Onion River Co-op opened a South End branch on Flynn Avenue, just off Pine, in 2017.
The neighborhood's status as a beer destination has even landed it a local nickname.
"At first I giggled when I heard somebody refer to Pine Street as 'Pint' Street," said Johanne Yordan, who lives on Birchcliff Parkway, less than 1,000 feet from two breweries. "There's a lot of good things. You want all these small businesses to flourish, to thrive, but it brings a lot of tourists and it brings a lot of traffic."
Steve Conant remembers when he and other artists, craftspeople and entrepreneurs flocked to the strip, which runs through the city's South End, in the early 1980s. Former warehouses made great, cheap studio spaces where he could experiment with his now-famous metal creations. He still owns 270 Pine Street, which he bought in 1984 for $50,000. Its value now: $435,000, a 125 percent increase over its most recent valuation. His tax hit is even higher because the city taxes commercial buildings at 120 percent of their value.
Conant acknowledges that the hike won't put him out of business, though. Twenty years ago, he bought the next-door Soda Plant building, which he recently remodeled and from where he runs his business, Conant Metal & Light. He's done well for himself.
He's tried to pay that back by keeping rents affordable for young entrepreneurs hoping to make a go of it, especially on Pine Street, which Conant is dedicated to trying to keep funky. But he worries that the new assessments will make the area even more exclusive than it's already become.
Conant has been successful at keeping an incubator-type vibe in his buildings, but, he said, the area is "now attractive to more mature, profitable businesses and investors.
"So there's risk in what's happened," he said.
Conant and City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) were both involved with a zoning rewrite in the early 2000s that allowed a wider variety of businesses to operate in the "enterprise zone," an area encompassing the Pine Street strip. In 2019, the rules were modified again to allow Burton to build a planned entertainment hub featuring Higher Ground, the state's largest performing arts venue. The South End City Market also needed a zoning change.
One use that's still not allowed in the zone? Housing. A proposal to change that touched off a heated debate in 2015, when dozens of people at planning meetings expressed fear that new housing would jack up rents in commercial spaces and drive out artists and small businesses. A group of artists even erected an installation titled "Miroville," a cardboard house wedged into a green space, to mock the mayor's pro-housing agenda. The Weinberger administration had argued that the dearth of housing in the coveted area was driving up housing costs, but the mayor eventually relented.
"While we were not ready as a community to expand housing opportunities in the South End several years ago, I do think this is a conversation we will need to revisit in targeted, strategic ways in the years ahead," Weinberger said in an emailed statement. "For housing to truly be a human right, for our community to be truly inclusive and welcoming, for us to meet our climate emergency goals, we need to create a lot more homes. The South End needs to be part of that solution."
With no new housing developments in the pipeline, the existing stock in neighborhoods on both sides of Pine Street is in high demand.
Councilor Shannon, a real estate agent, said South End homes had been selling for twice their assessed value even before the pandemic boom, which has only exacerbated the situation. Where many buyers were once looking to downsize, they're now seeking homes with a "Zoom room" for each family member, Shannon said. Ward 6's Hill Section, known for its larger abodes, has become more desirable as a result, she said.
"Multiple kids all trying to attend school at the same time, and parents, many of whom are also working remotely — it has put a lot of pressure on the home itself," Shannon said. "It's happening all across the country."
Erik and Kathryn Trinkaus moved to Ward 6 from Missouri in 2019 after they both retired from Washington University in St. Louis. They rented in Colchester for a year before they bought on Cliff Street just as the pandemic began last March.
They paid about $520,000 for the home, which the city had valued at $374,000 in 2005. They have since put about $100,000 in upgrades into the place. Their new valuation, though, blew them away: $876,600.
The couple later learned the city had incorrectly recorded some information that had increased the value of their home. They pleaded their case at an appeal hearing last month.
The reassessment was a rude awakening for the new arrivals.
"We have worried about whether it will change the nature of our neighborhood," Kathryn said. "This is a very pleasant, family-oriented neighborhood with a mix of young families and older folks. We'd hate to see that change."
- Luke Awtry
- Johanne Yordan
The Birchcliff Parkway area, where Yordan lives, has also become more attractive. The network of midcentury homes, arranged on streets named after tree and plant species, is trendy despite boasting less square footage than the "Sears catalog homes" of the older Five Sisters neighborhood, Shannon said. A handful have turned over to new owners during the pandemic.
A three-bedroom split-level ranch near Yordan's house, valued at $286,000 before the reassessment, sold in January for $528,500 — $65,000 more than its new assessment. That same month, another three-bedroom on nearby Bittersweet Lane, which was valued at $234,300 prior to the reassessment, sold for $431,000.
Yordan's family is one of the originals. In 1966, her father purchased the home where she still lives, one of the first to be built in the development. The working-class neighborhood was safe and isolated, Yordan said, recalling playing in the streets with her friends until dinnertime. Many of their fathers worked at the former General Electric plant on nearby Lakeside Avenue.
Yordan considered selling her childhood home and met with a real estate agent last fall. She had just learned that Burlington High School, where her 16-year-old daughter was enrolled, was contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. And she's long been frustrated by the city's high taxes. She wanted out.
But Yordan soon realized that she couldn't compete with other buyers' cash offers if she went in search of a new home. Her daughter will transfer to a new high school in the fall, solving one problem.
The reassessment, however, has caused Yordan to reconsider staying put. Her home's value, which she has appealed, increased by 50 percent, to $434,600. She fears that she and her neighbors will owe even more taxes.
"Most of us have a really, really hard time believing that Burlington isn't going to start taxing us a lot more," she said. "If it's not this next tax bill coming in, it'll be the next one."
The Data Dive
Seven Days used data on about 10,400 taxable Burlington properties that the city provided in mid-April. These data included addresses with previous assessed values and the new, preliminary property values the city assigned during the recent reassessment.
We geocoded the property addresses to obtain latitude and longitude, then used those coordinates to identify each property's city ward. We calculated the percent increase of each property relative to its previous valuation. We then averaged the percentages overall by each Burlington land use code, of which the city has nearly two dozen, or by ward.
Data scientist Sophia Hodson contributed reporting.