Romney's Belmont: Town's 'Rich' Reputation Not Exactly Earned
Patch's third installment in The Romney Effect series shows how long-time residents and census data paint a nuanced picture of "Romney's home town."
Do you want the low down about Belmont? Just ask "Raven."
A prolific writer on the Democratic Underground message board, Raven told its 175,000 readers that you can learn a lot about Romney by looking at where he has lived for the past four decades.
And he contends that Belmont mirrors the candidate for president: wealthy and privileged.
"The people there live in 5,000-10,000 sf mansions on 1/4-acre parcels of land. They have summer homes in gated communities on the Cape. They have maids, landscapers, personal trainers and they send their kids to private schools like the Belmont Hill School. They commute to Boston in very expensive cars and would find it unthinkable to take the 'T,'" said Raven, who states he or she grew up near the Romneys.
But that's not to say everyone in town is rich and out-of-touch. There are those who are in service.
"[T]here are a few neighborhoods that working class folks who service the wealthy folks might be able to afford if they really stretched their budgets," he/she wrote.
While Raven presented a myopic and extreme view of the people who live in town, some journalists and pundits have used Belmont as a byword for the sort of upscale suburb that can house the manse of a well-healed presidential candidate:
• "The Romney sons grew up in Belmont, Mass., an affluent suburb outside of Boston," reported Rock Center, NBC's latest news magazine.
While there are touches of fact to the media's description of their hometown, not every resident accepts the recent effort by some to use Belmont as an euphemism for being extremely well-off.
And for many in town, the jabs from bloggers and throw-away phrases from national correspondents are fightin' words.
"To say that everyone in this town is rich and privileged is so far from the reality," said Mary Keenan, a former Lexington teacher who has been a resident for nearly a half century.
Belmont Hill is Not Belmont
Mitt and Ann Romney have lived in the decidedly upscale Belmont Hill neighborhood for three of four decades in town. To other long-time Belmont residents, the media focus on this small, upscale neighborhood distorts the real view of Belmont.
"There are sections that have earned a reputation for being better off than the rest of the town, but that's the same for almost every town in America," said Paul Carey, who raised four children on the edge of Belmont Hill. "But please, no one's going to say that I'm one of Mitt's neighbors."
There are homes "on the Hill" that regularly take seven figures to purchase, but less than two-thirds of Belmont’s 10,000 residential buildings are owned by the homeowner, with most of the nearly 4,000 units remaining to the rental and condominium market, according to the town's Assessor’s Office.
"The last time we did a survey of Belmont, we found that a good part of the housing stock is two family houses," said Mark Paolillo, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, and a life-long town resident. "The preception of Belmont as a community of high-end homes and little else is clearly a stereotype and little else."
Belmont’s Hidden Story: Economic and Ethnic Diversity
That's not to say the town is a Potemkin Village of perceived wealth: residents have a healthy financial base to rely on. US Census statistics for 2010 show Belmont's median home values are nearly 80 percent higher than the state average —$629,500 to $352,300 — yet that is hardly in the league of communities such as Weston, and Wellesley where the median value of homes are in the $900,000 range and even lags behind Newton.
But that baseline does not reflect the range of incomes in Belmont's residents and families. While many families are well-off – median household income in Belmont at $97,200 is nearly $30,000 greater than the statewide number ($64,500) – there are others who need support to make ends meet.
"People are always surprised that we have people who need to line up at our food pantry, but Belmont is no different than any town," said Keenan. "We are not all privileged."
Aside from economic diversity, the town has made strides in ethnic diversity. Belmont has experienced an influx of immigrants and new neighbors from different backgrounds, attracted by the outstanding school system which yearly tops national rankings. The community’s Asian population in particular has swelled, according to 2010 Census data.
This new reality can be seen by the changing demographics at the Butler Elementary School on White Street, which is less than a mile from the Romney's townhouse on South Cottage Road. The 355 students in the kindergarten-to-fourth grade school were born in 35 different countries and speak 38 languages at home.
"We are becoming a more diverse community than some of the communities that we are being compared with," said Paolillo.
Changing Perceptions, One Reporter at a Time
And when the media does venture into town, the perception of Belmont's protected and enclosed community is dispelled.
Erik Mouthaan, a correspondent for RTL Nederland, the leading television network in the Netherlands, came to Belmont to do a report on Belmont's famous resident.
"It is not the place as I thought it would be," Mouthaan told Belmont Patch in June, noting how the town appeared to be made up of "connected villages" and not separate walled communities.
"I was expecting more mansions, but it's a lot like where I live in north (New) Jersey," he said as his cameraman, Dennis Verheijen, took shots of Belmont Center.
"It's a nice town," he said.