Stamford exemplifies the death of middle-class fam - 3/20/2015
Stamford has changed much since the reveiws below.
I’m writing this review after 18 years in Stamford, and toward the end of the toughest, longest winter we’ve ever had, so you may choose to overlook the depressing undertone if you wish, but take the facts at their face value, because they’re 100% true.
Stamford is still a safe, beautiful, vibrant city with something for everyone: parks, beaches, restaurants, nightlife, shopping, nature, special events, museums, libraries, gyms, a Chelsea Pier, skating rinks, etc.
It is a mere 45-minute ride from NYC and surrounded by cities that have everything Stamford doesn’t. In short: Home Depot, Whole Food, Costco, Aquarium, Children Museum.
Schools are pretty good (compared to places with low high-school graduation rates and under 15% getting a college education) and always in close proximity to where you live – although you’re never safe from an arbitrary redistricting that will send your children to the worst school on the other end of town just so your nice neighborhood school can welcome children from the bad neighborhoods (which happens about once every 10 years).
Property taxes are reasonable compared to cities such as Bridgeport, unless of course you leave in very affluent areas (think “Dolphin Cove) where you can expect to pay up to $25,000 in property taxes.
The only cons (apart from the title of this comment – see below for more detail) are traffic and the roads:
TRAFFIC: Traffic has become very congested throughout, and most plans to improve things quickly turn sour because of bad planning (the intersection of Myrtle and Elm is one of the best examples of that). The “red zones” (i.e. you get one light red, you get all lights red) are not helping decongest busy avenues and morning/evening commute is a pain as it may take you as long to cross the city has to go home to another one. Stamford City’s motto is “Stamford, the City that Works” and they’ve been true to it. For the past 15 years, there has been no respite from road work and construction, and there is none in sight.
ROADS: The roads are kept clean during the winter but they’re extremely damaged (both by the snow plowers and the utility companies that do repairs and upgrade their underground fittings regularly). The Citizen Service Center is good at logging in requests for work, but doesn’t control the work done. So everyone (subcontractors, utility companies, etc.) do what they want and the results are roads with gigantic bumps and potholes, and disgusting patchwork repairs that don’t last. Downtown is better than most areas.
Now, to the subject of this post… Why, you ask, does Stamford exemplify the death of middle-class family? Well, here you go:
1) HOUSING & UTILITIES: Over the past few years, the cost of life has tripled and the housing and utility costs have become utterly absurd. To reside in a safe area, expect to shed at least $400,000 (for an apartment or small house). Also expect your utilities to run in the $4,000/year at best (unless you have a small apartment and central air). Gas is your best bet for heating. If your home has electrical or oil heat, don’t expect to eat much – which takes us to our point # 2.
2) FOOD: The area (Stamford/Greenwich/Darien/Norwalk) is seriously overpriced when it comes to food. If you choose to cook from scratch (vs. eat pizza every day), plan a $600–$1,000 monthly food budget for a small family (3–4 people) and forget about organic food altogether. You may grow some tomatoes and basic vegetables during the summer months, but that’s all the organic produce you’ll ever see in your plate. The only plus on the food front: several life-saving Trader Joe’s in the area, some sensibly priced but incredible places such as Layla’s Falafel, and a variety of reasonably priced restaurants in the surrounding towns.
3) DOUBLE-STANDARD SCHOOL SYSTEMS AND PROGRAMS: Connecticut and Fairfield County have excellent “social” benefits for disadvantaged families (Husky, free/reduced lunches, daycare, summer camps, etc.) and attract A LOT of low-income families. This means that most of the spots in Magnet Schools are given to children from [supposedly] low-income families, and that the children from low-income neighborhood are bussed around town to the best schools while your middle-class neighborhood school has 75% minorities and your child receives inferior education. Same thing with daycare; a family that makes around $100k/year should expect to pay $250–$300/week for state-subsidized daycare while a low-income family can expect to pay anything between $0 and $25/week. Same thing with school lunches, summer camps, medical care, etc. The system was designed to be fair and give a chance to the families who need it the most, but it’s been hijacked by people who pretend they’re low income. If you think that’s not possible, try to register your child at one of the state-subsidized daycare centers. If you’re white and speak decent English, you’ll be asked for your tax returns (3 last years) and paystubs (last 4). If you pretend you don’t speak English and work cash as a housekeeper (and look the part), you’ll be asked for a letter from your employer stating how much she pays you. There’s no control whatsoever. So when the $300-paying parent who can’t afford to buy meat twice a week discovers that the $10-paying one has several houses in the area and a Lexus, he gets a little bitter.
4) DOUBLE-STANDARD CITY RULES WHEN IT COMES TO ZONING REGULATIONS: In Stamford, you can have a “legal” finished basement/attic/extra space in your home, but you cannot RENT a “legal” finished basement/attic/extra space (ever), even less have a kitchen in it. It’s against city zoning regulations and fire department regulations. In multiple-family-homes neighborhood, the City turns a blind eye to houses that have 15 satellite antennas on their roof and 8 electrical meters, including 3 for the basement. However, if you’re trying to rent an in-law apartment in a single-family-homes neighborhood, you’ll have to make sure no one ever finds out about it or there will be hell to pay. If you happened to buy a house whose basement was finished without a permit (typically, your house will not match the City datasheet about it) and get a City inspection, the installations (heaters, bathroom, etc.) will have to be torn down at your cost.
5) DOUBLE-STANDARD NEIGHBORHOOD MAINTENANCE AND BEAUTIFICATION: For the past 10+ years, the policy of the City has been to beautify the bad neighborhoods. Luxury high-rise buildings are built around them, ugly apartment complexes are replaced with pretty townhouses, sidewalks and roads are completely redone, they get nice green spaces/parks, lighting and plantings, etc. Meanwhile, middle-class family neighborhoods (e.g. Glenbrook) become places where no one wants to live in anymore because everything is falling apart and nothing is done about it. Sidewalks are impracticable to strollers and older people. Trees are left to rot, fall down or are taken down and seldom replaced. Home owners are left to their own device when it comes to cleaning the streets and plowing sidewalks, etc.
6) “RIGGED” SCHOOL LOTTERY SYSTEM: If you’re lucky enough to make it to a Magnet School through the lottery system the honest way (applying, declaring your real income and your real address), you can be assured your child will stay in Magnet Schools through 8th grade. The trick is to make it in. I wish I could tell you it’s a fair process (it certainly was designed to be fair), but it’s not. First of all, some Magnet Schools (Rogers, for example) must take in a certain percentage of children from outside the city, so good luck making it in. I know people from Stamford whose children were on the very top of the list (including #1) and never made it in. I also know people whose children consistently make in in “through the lottery”. ALL children from low-income families who are already in an elementary Magnet School typically make it into the Magnet middle school. That’s what I call “rigged” (or at least not as fair as we’re led to believe).
7) BEACH PARKS ARE BEING OVERRUN BY OUT OF TOWNERS: Our beach parks used to be beautiful, clean, quiet and safe. Most beach parks like Cove Park are now being overrun by people from Bridgeport, Queens and the Bronx who literally “camp” there with their 30-people families and stereo amplifier for a discounted, mediocre fee, monopolizing the space and the picnic tables and ignoring the garbage areas or common courtesy rules. The City has given up cleaning up the place or keeping it safe and quiet. They’ve invested quite a bit in a new playground a couple of years ago, only to let it get destroyed. If you want a nice beach park, your only option is to go to Greenwich and pay their substantial out-of-town fee (because they understood that unless you charge out of towners more, you’re going to attract unwanted visitors).
8) THERE IS NO REASONABLY PRICED INDOOR CHILDREN ACTIVITIES: You would think that a city whose children have to spend 8 months a year indoor would at least have an indoor playground, an indoor public pool, or something similar. Not in Stamford. Your only family options during bad days are the overpriced Chelsea Pier ($350/month for a fully inclusive family membership) or similarly expensive private facilities (unless you don’t mind spending all your weekend in nearby overcrowded Stepping Stone Museum or Aquarium and have a membership). “The” place to be during winter and on bad-weather days is the Mall. Think “overcrowded, overpriced, loud place where security guards forbid 12 year olds from STANDING in the play area next to their younger sibling and people occasionally jump from the top floors to kill themselves”. No thank you.
So to conclude the “Stamford-exemplifies-the-death-of-the-middle-class-family” chapter: Unless you’re single and make a good living in NYC, or you have a family and make well over $250K/year or less than $25,000/year (or at least can pretend you do), don’t expect to live well here. If you’re on the fence: RENT. It will be much cheaper, and it gives you more flexibility when it comes to choosing a school for your children.
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