The southeast quadrant of our city is frequently in the news, but many don’t know a great deal about it. In fact, a recent Election Day survey reported that about 42 percent of voters didn’t know where it was located. This article attempts to fill in some of the blanks.
The census divides our city into four separate tracts. The southeast quadrant extends from Interstate 89 south to Shelburne, and from Williston on the east to Spear Street.
If a driver turns south off Kennedy Drive onto either Dorset Street or Hinesburg Road and continues for a few miles, most of the area on both sides of the road will be in the southeast quadrant. On Dorset Street the driver can’t miss the Vermont National Country Club, approximately in the middle of the southeast quadrant.
A second tract extends from the west side of Spear Street down to the Lake and up to Burlington, and the third one includes the neighborhoods around Kennedy Drive and Williston Road.
The fourth is what most people conventionally call the airport neighborhood.
Because the southeast quadrant is the least developed section of the city, it is frequently the focus of a great deal of planning effort and public debate over its future. The southeast quadrant is starkly different from the rest of the city in its abundant open spaces but also the presence of many upscale homes, sometimes on very large lots.
Conversely, the southeast quadrant is notable for its absence of moderately priced and starter homes for first time buyers. The economic gaps between the southeast quadrant and the other three census tracts appear to be increasing and are difficult to ignore.
The southeast quadrant has the most open and undeveloped space remaining within the city and — by far — the fewest people per acre. More than 50 percent of the acreage is protected by Natural Resource Protection areas, and there are many hundreds of acres of fields and forests conserved by city purchases as well as other preservation vehicles.
It is the largest South Burlington tract, with 37 percent of acreage, but has the fewest residences at just 17 percent of the city.
Nonetheless, since South Burlington is the second largest city in Vermont, if this relatively small census tract stood alone as separate town, it would be listed among the largest one-fifth of Vermont’s 255 municipalities.
Consider the following data from the census’ American Community Survey from 2015-2019. The houses in the southeast quadrant are generally larger and more expensive than those in other tracts. Eighty-nine percent have three or more bedrooms and owners estimated the median value to be about $450,000, significantly higher than in any of the three other tracts with medians between $238,400 and $304,404. Unlike the other tracts, almost all the residences (95 percent) are inhabited by their owners (i.e., non-renters) and about the same proportion are single family homes or condos.
The southeast quadrant also has the newest homes, with 51 percent built since 2000. In the three other tracts, only between 16 percent and 25 percent of the homes are so recently constructed. A quick check by a local realtor of today’s prices for available houses on the market in the southeast quadrant revealed that the lowest was $531,503, and three are over $975,000, including one for $1,950,000. Rarely are homes under $300,000 found in the southeast quadrant, yet they are fairly common in the other three other tracts.
The demographics of the population of the southeast quadrant reflect the size and upmarket prices of the housing stock. The residents have the highest proportion of adults holding bachelor’s degrees and there is very little poverty and few female headed households. As is less often the case than previously, most of the households are “married couple households,” a far higher proportion than in the three other tracts where the percent varies between 32 percent and 44 percent.
Also unusual is the fact that 27 percent of the homes in the southeast quadrant have access to 3 or more vehicles, more than twice as high as in any other census tract.
The median household income in the southeast quadrant is $142,218, about twice that of the other three tracts. The median income for the Airport neighborhood, for example, is $60,781, about 43 percent of the median income found in the southeast quadrant. The other two Tracks report median incomes of $63,198 and $74,552. By comparison, the median household income for the state was $63,001, and $65,712 for the nation as a whole.
If the southeast quadrant were actually its own town, the $142,218 median household income would be higher than that of any other single town in Vermont, including Shelburne at $96,165, Charlotte at $108,611 and Norwich at $121,563.
These figures are not to suggest that the southeast quadrant even approaches the exclusivity of a Beacon Hill or Mar-a-Lago, but the disparities and inequalities are high by Vermont standards.
What kind of balance — what type of shared responsibility — do we want among the four neighborhoods of South Burlington?
With the well documented need for more moderately priced housing, what should the city do to foster greater equality and encourage housing that would be financially available to young workers as they purchase their first homes and perhaps start a family?
These are questions for the whole community, not just residents of the southeast quadrant. Professional planners and citizen committees have been studying these questions for the past several years and soon will bring a draft planning document to the public for reaction. They are hoping for widespread citizen input.
Vince Bolduc serves on the Affordable Housing Committee and lives in the southeast quadrant.