Heritage Road Five Years Later

When Demetri and Linda Theofilou flew east from Chicago in the spring of 1997 to look for a house in the Boston suburbs, they knew they’d have to act quickly. Inventory was low, and housing prices were on the rise. They found a three-bedroom split-level that they liked, on Heritage Road in Billerica. The house went on the market at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning. By 11, the Theofilous made an offer. They got it for just under $200,000. Today, almost four years later, the value of their home has increased nearly 50 percent. Demetri and Linda Theofilou eagerly proclaim that life is good.

The Theofilous are products of the high-tech prosperity that has brought a new breed of residents to Heritage Road and the rest of this town 19 miles north and a little west of Boston. Demetri, 41, works as a network administrator for the pharmaceutical giant Abbot Laboratories, in Bedford. Linda, 36, is a high-tech recruiter for Nortel Networks in Billerica. They have three children, ages 11, 9, and 4.

But if life is good for the Theofilous, it’s not just from riding the high-tech wave. Linda concedes that one reason they are living better now than five years ago is that she’s working full-time rather than part-time, now that the kids are older. That’s the upside. The downside is that, now that the kids are older, they could use more space. Their home is worth $100,000 more today than when they bought it, but so is every other house in the Boston area. Instead of moving up to something larger, they’re staying put on Heritage Road.

Heritage Road is the main thoroughfare of Heritage Heights, a subdivision like many others in suburbia. Built in the early 1970s, it’s a tract development of 100 or so split-level houses, just up Route 3A from the center of Billerica, past the high school and the town offices. The street names evoke Americana–Mount Vernon, Monticello, Homestead, and Heritage Road itself.

The Timmins family on the cover of the
premier issue of

No one would mistake Heritage Heights for Wellesley or Weston. Here, the houses are essentially identical–faux Dutch Colonial and faux Tudor in style–each consisting of a living room, kitchen, and bedrooms upstairs, a family room and garage downstairs. Almost every driveway has a basketball hoop. It’s middle class, no pretensions.

As a town, Billerica has few pretensions either. It’s a working-class community of strip malls and vinyl-sided bungalows that once had a reputation as a biker haven. These days, though, Billerica can boast real estate’s holy grail: location. It’s right next door to such high-tech centers as Burlington and Bedford and close to routes 3 and 128. In this corner of Middlesex County, Billerica used to be the place homebuyers could find “value.” Less so, these days. The town is moving upscale, attracting the Theofilous and families like them.

“It has been a tremendous five years,” says Maureen M. Sullivan, the town moderator. “The town is definitely more middle class. Property values have shot up. Building permits here are going out like crazy, both residential and business.”

But the newcomers are by no means dot-com entrepreneurs or the stock-option millionaires. Rather, they are the new middle class, drawing a paycheck from the New Economy but struggling in old, familiar ways to balance work and home, ambition and security, hope and fear.

In the debut issue of CommonWealth, published in the spring of 1996, founding editor Dave Denison came to Heritage Road to take the measure of the American Dream. “[I]f you happen to find yourself at the corner of Heritage Road and, say, Homestead Lane. . .you can imagine yourself standing in the middle of America. . .,”he wrote. “From outside appearances this looks to be a representative tract of Middle America, or at least Middle Massachusetts.”

In his visits to Heritage Road, Denison found families who described themselves as economically squeezed. He discovered what he called “a reservoir of anxiety or, at the very least, disappointment.” Many of the families he spoke to seemed to be questioning that bedrock promise of middle-class life: upward mobility.

The Theofilou family: Life is good on Heritage Road.

This winter, CommonWealth returned to Heritage Road to find out how the last five years have treated these residents of Middle Massachusetts. It is, in ways both obvious and subtle, a different neighborhood today. Community activist Mary Davenport, whom Denison got to know, died of cancer some time ago, and her family has moved away. In fact, many older families who bought their homes in the 1970s, when Heritage Heights was built, have moved on as well, their children grown up.

But Heritage Heights is every bit the bellwether of middle-class Massachusetts today that it was five years ago. In our recent visits, we found families that seem to be doing well overall, with little fear for their jobs, and incomes on the way up. Still, if some of the old anxieties have abated, newer ones have taken their place. On Heritage Road, we found a middle class more secure in employment, yet peddling faster to stay in place. The dramatic increase in real estate values is outpacing incomes, enriching homesteaders on paper even as they struggle, on two incomes, to support properties worth more than they could ever have imagined paying. With each up-tick of the rising market, newcomers, younger families, and single parents find it harder to afford a piece of this particular patch of the American Dream. Even for families like the Theofilous, a split-level home in a Billerica subdivision seems to represent the upper limit of their aspirations. They’ve made it to Heritage Road. But Heritage Road seems as far as they expect to go.

The new middle class draws a paycheck from the New Economy, but struggles in familiar ways.

As it does for their neighbors. For Heritage Road is also Darren and Meg Chirichetti, who arrived in the neighborhood two years ago only by means of pluck and luck–and someone else’s failed American Dream. It’s also Laurie Carol, who grew up on Heritage Road and now, separated from her husband and raising a child, is struggling to stay there. It’s JoAnne and Tony Giovino–among the earliest settlers of Heritage Heights–who bought their house on Eastview Avenue, a block over from Heritage, for a pittance back in 1974 and are now enjoying the fruits of middle-class success even as they wonder at the swirl of money around them. And then, there are those who have left Heritage Heights, such as Joe Timmins and his wife, Debra. After living house poor on Heritage Road for six years, they migrated with their two kids to Lancaster, Pa., where Debra has been studying for the ministry. Now, they want to come home to eastern Massachusetts, back to a place they love but which is very different than when they left.

Compared to the Theofilous, who lived in Greece for a couple of years and bring an Old World flavor to the land of three-bedroom “splits” and SUVs, the Chirichettis are suburban Boston through and through. They grew up in neighboring towns–he in Wakefield, she in Melrose. Billerica puts them a short drive from both their families. Darren, 39, works as a project supervisor at a North Andover company that installs modular furniture for large companies like Fleet, Fidelity, and Sun Microsystems; he has eight men working for him, sometimes 10. Meg, who is 36, works part-time four evenings a week entering data at Iron Mountain, a data storage firm in Burlington. Their daughters are ages 11 and 8.

The couple say they are definitely better off than they were five years ago. Back then, they were living in a condo in Dracut they had outgrown but couldn’t unload. They bought the condo for $116,000 in 1988, just before the real-estate crash that accompanied the deep recession of the early 1990s. That slump hit the overbuilt condo market particularly hard. In Dracut, the average condo price dropped from $110,000 in 1988 to $65,000 in 1996, according to the real-estate newspaper Banker and Tradesman. Unable to sell, some of the Chirichettis’ neighbors were just “walking away and leaving their keys in the door,” Meg recalls. By 1997, the market was picking up, but the Chirichettis still sold at a loss. They lived with Meg’s parents in Arlington for a year to save up for a second shot at homeownership.

The Chirichettis landed on Heritage Road by sheer chance. A house across and down the street from the Theofilous was foreclosed on and put up for sale at auction. Meg’s brother saw the notice in the newspaper. “We just got lucky,” says Meg.

“We literally bought it on the street corner,” Darren says. They weren’t even given a chance to see the interior before they took possession. But there’s no question they got a good deal. They paid $150,000, at a time that other houses on Heritage Road were going for $30,000 to $50,000 more.

“If we hadn’t bought the house at auction and had to buy it at $200,000, I’d have to work full-time,” says Meg. Now, with monthly payments in the vicinity of $1,000 to carry their $120,000 mortgage, she works part-time, and they still have money to spare. As soon as they moved in, the Chirichettis tore the house apart, re-doing the kitchen and bathroom, putting in new carpets downstairs and, just recently, replacing the furnace. They are making other improvements gradually, with Darren doing much of the work himself. This spring they plan to put in new windows and vinyl siding, plus a new lawn. “We have a wish list,” says Meg.

Still, the Chirichettis are working like demons to make a better life for themselves and their children. Meg works from 6 to 11 p.m., four nights a week. And Darren, who has been at the same company for 17 years, puts in 50 to 60 hours a week, including overtime and weekends. The split shifts help the Chirichettis save on child care, but the schedule doesn’t leave them much time together.

Despite rumblings that the boom of the late ’90s may be at an end, Darren is optimistic about his own economic future. “The economy is settling,” he says. “Things are slowing down a little at work but there have been no layoffs.” The way Darren figures it, if there is a recession, he might have even more work than he has now–taking down all that modular furniture his company installed. Still, he betrays a certain caution in his financial planning: He could have taken out a bigger mortgage but didn’t do so, he says, because he wanted to make sure he could make the monthly payments even if Meg wound up out of work. The Dracut condo experience was a cautionary one, Meg says: “After that, we didn’t want to go in over our heads.”

For the Chirichettis, like the Theofilous, further mobility upwards doesn’t seem in the cards, but that doesn’t bother them. “We’ve been moving up for 10 years,” Darren says. “I can live comfortably until I’m 65.”

Likewise, Linda Theofilou neither longs for advancement nor fears disaster. “I can’t imagine change, higher or lower,” she says. “I don’t think anything major will happen.” So the Theofilous decided to put an addition on their current home, instead of looking for a larger house as the kids got older and required an extra bedroom.

Both couples are staying put, hunkering down, putting money into their houses, content in the realization that Heritage Road may be as good as it’s going to get.

Laurie Carol would love to have the sense of security the Theofilous and the Chirichettis feel. At 33, she is a single mother, raising her six-year-old daughter, Briana. Laurie grew up on Heritage Road, just a few doors up from the Theofilous, in a house surrounded by tall pine trees and within sight of the Marshall Middle School. She got a two-year college degree in office education, then left home–but not Billerica–when she got married. When she and her husband separated five years ago, she moved back to her parents’ house in Heritage Heights.

But now her parents are getting divorced, after almost 40 years of marriage, and have to sell the house in order the divide the marital assets. Laurie would dearly love to buy it. But she can’t figure a way to make the mortgage payments and still make ends meet.

Carol, with Briana: “What ever
happened to the middle class?”

Not that Laurie doesn’t have a good job. After 12 years at Raytheon, she left a couple of years ago to work in sales for iBasis, a Burlington Internet communications start-up. The firm has been growing impressively. It now has 300 employees; Laurie got in on the ground floor, as employee number 40. She owns a small chunk of the company’s stock, which has been tumbling in the past year along with the rest of the Nasdaq. But her pay is up and, now that Briana is older and in school, her day-care expenses are down.

Yet because of the red-hot housing market the prospect of owning her own home seems “so far away,” she says. Laurie figures she could afford to pay $210,000–down payment plus mortgage–but all she can find for that price are “knockdowns,” as she describes them. Her parents’ house was appraised for $250,000 some months ago, and she assumes it is worth even more now. She has made an offer on the house to her parents, but is afraid she will find herself “strapped” financially if they accept. If they sell to someone else, she will have to be out within a few months.

Such is the financial life of a single mother. “When I was married, my ex-husband had an extra job in case there was a problem with the mortgage,” she says. “But I can’t do this. You don’t have the ability to pay a mortgage without a second income. One income isn’t enough.”

She is proud to be raising her daughter on her own and is determined to rely on herself. But “it’s tough,” she says. “I know people who have had to stay with friends and sleep on the couch for months because they couldn’t find a place to live.” Developers are only building houses which sell in the $500,000 range, she complains. “They forget the little guys. What ever happened to the middle class and to single parents?”

Laurie appears to be both winner and loser in the New Economy. Her job at iBasis has opened all sorts of avenues for her; she now has skills she can take anywhere in a growing industry. “This is the hot spot, telecom,” she says. “The job market is good. There isn’t a day I say, ‘I don’t want to go to work.’ I’m doing well. I have a good job, a good income, a beautiful daughter.”

But if she can’t find a way to hold on to her parents’ house, she fears she could slip right out of the middle class. To her, being middle class has as much to do with where she lives as with how much she earns. “Right now I consider myself middle class because I am able to live in this house,” she says. “But if I have to leave, I don’t know.”

One couple with a sure grip on its middle-class status is the Giovinos, over on Eastview Avenue. Tony is 51 and Joanne 50; they have two daughters: Katelyn, 20, who attends St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, and Leslie Anne, 16, who’s in high school. Tony owns Main Street Services, a service station in Medford. The Giovinos bought their Heritage Heights house back in 1974 for about $40,000. It seemed a lot of money at the time. But that was then.

The Giovinos represent an older, more established generation of Heritage Heights residents, a generation that moved there before the boom and the rise in real estate values. In part because of her husband’s successful small business, in part because they haven’t been burdened by the high mortgages young couples face today, JoAnne hasn’t worked outside the home since the children were born. She has been involved in the community, volunteering for the town’s conservation commission and serving as president of a local organization trying to clean up a hazardous waste site a couple of miles from their house. They weathered one financial storm when Katelyn lost a $12,000 scholarship at Bradford College when the 197-year-old institution closed down suddenly during her freshman year there.

“It is hard to say if we’re moving up or down,” says JoAnne. “We’ve been able to plan and save. We haven’t overextended ourselves. We feel secure. We’re happy, the kids are happy, and that’s what counts.”

Yet, in many respects, she doesn’t like what she sees. From her perch on the conservation commission, JoAnne views Billerica’s rapid growth and increasing affluence in recent years as a double-edged sword, with town planning failing to keep pace with the changes. “Pieces of land are suddenly extremely valuable,” she says. “Open space is disappearing.” People with more money than she can imagine are paying unthinkable sums for houses. When JoAnne heard that her friend Mary Davenport’s house on Heritage Road was sold for $300,000 recently, she was absolutely “floored.”

“The last few years have been kind of unreal,” says JoAnne. “There is so much money around.”

The security that should come from prosperity is undermined by the runaway rise of housing costs.

For most families on Heritage Road, there remains a treacherous undercurrent to middle-class life: the financial security that should come from prosperity is undermined by a runaway rise in housing costs. And it is reflected across the state. In a recent report for MassINC’s American Dream Project, economist Andrew Sum of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies found that, despite the strongest economy in 30 years and record low unemployment rates, median household income in Massachusetts (adjusted for inflation) is still 9 percent below its pre-recession peak, in 1989. In 1998-99, median household income in Massachusetts was $43,736, some $4,000 less than the income high-water mark of $48,483 (in 1999 dollars) a decade earlier. For Massachusetts families in the bottom half of the income distribution, plentiful jobs in a booming economy have not been enough to restore the purchasing power they had before the recession of the early 1990s.

That “anemic” earnings growth, as Sum puts it, among middle-income households becomes more of a strain as housing costs continue to rise–driven, in part, by the economic gains posted by the upper end of the income spectrum. In the greater Boston area, the average price for a single-family home jumped 67.1 percent between 1996 and 2000, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors; the statewide increase was just under 50 percent. Income has just not kept up. In a study conducted for the Archdiocese of Boston, Barry Bluestone, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, found that for every 10 percent rise in family income in Massachusetts from 1995 to ’99, there has been a 14 percent increase in housing prices.

“The more prosperous we become, the further housing gets outside of reach for families,” Bluestone says.

The result is two classes of people, Bluestone says–“older” baby-boomers, like the Giovinos, who bought before the spike in housing prices, and younger couples, like the Theofilous and Chirichettis, who bought in a rapidly rising market. Long-time homeowners have seen their biggest investment grow dramatically in value, he says, while the younger boomers and twenty-somethings who are renting or looking to buy for the first time are hit by “horrendously high prices.” It is a generational problem, he says, with the younger generation “caught in a bind.”

Sum concurs: “There are two sides to the story,” he says. “Those people who bought before the run-up in prices feel better about the economy. But those people who still rent and want to buy a house and those people who bought in the last few years, they realize that the only way to afford a mortgage is dual participation [in the work force] full time. What you find is that many of the wives now work full time around almost as many hours as their husbands.”

Still, for most on Heritage Road, life is good–particularly for those who already own a piece of the Billerica rock. For them, worries mostly concern the future. The Theofilous are anxious about the high cost of their kids’ college education, but their oldest child is only 11; they still have time to put money aside. JoAnne Giovino worries whether her children will ever be able to buy houses of their own, but that, too, seems a long way off: Her younger daughter just got her driver’s license, after all. Providing for their elderly parents may be more pressing, but the Giovinos feel ready to cope with that, when it comes. Darren Chirichetti is concerned about retirement, but that’s 24 years from now, and he’s saving, making plans. For these families, Heritage Road is as good a place as any to prepare for the future.

But one family once of Heritage Road got their leg up on the future elsewhere. When CommonWealth visited Joe and Debra Timmins back in 1996, they were “struggling to stay in the middle class” in a Heritage Road house that had turned into a “money pit.” Not long afterward, just $300 to their name, the thirty-something couple and their two kids pulled up stakes and moved to Amish country so Debra could go to theological school.

“We were just squeaking by in Billerica,” admits Debra. They did have one asset: their Heritage Road house, which they sold at a modest profit, just as house prices were beginning their upward climb. It was enough to pay their debts and Debra’s tuition at a United Church of Christ seminary. In Pennsylvania, Joe landed a job at small software company. And the family was able to live in a four-story rowhouse, in a block of houses owned by the seminary; their rent: $550 a month. They could breathe again.

Today, after close to four years in Lancaster, the couple are living comfortably on Joe’s income and putting money away. Debra graduates this spring, and the family is planning to move back to Massachusetts, to be close to Joe’s mother.

Debra has “high hopes” of finding a ministerial “call”–and more–in Massachusetts. Debra jokes that she went into the ministry “for God and the parsonage,” so “we’re hoping parsonage,” she says. Joe already has a lead on a job with a small start-up company here. Should all that work out, they’ll be returning to the Bay State with two incomes. If there is no parsonage in Debra’s future, however, they’ll have to deal with the steep rise in house prices since their departure.

Meet the Author
Still, had they stayed on Heritage Road and had Debra gone to theological school in Massachusetts, she says, “We would have been up to our eyeballs in debt.” Instead, the Timminses, who graced the cover of CommonWealth’s first issue, will get the chance to return and start over, financially secure–and with hopes for upward mobility–thanks to their time away.

Neil Miller teaches journalism at Tufts University. His most recent book is Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present.