Before he was voted in as Bethlehem Town Supervisor, before he and his wife placed a downpayment on their Delmar home, David VanLuven went “community shopping.”
VanLuven’s family transplanted from New England. They lived north of Boston, faced with exorbitant commutes to and from work and had no prospect of affording a home in a good school district. In Boston, the median home value exceeds half a million dollars. You could drive 50 miles by cah and you still won’t be able to buy a three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot home for the average price here. So, when he landed a job opportunity that would require a move to the Capital District, they jumped.
As they looked for a place to establish roots, VanLuven said they looked for three things; school districts, libraries and a general feel of the community. They narrowed their sights on Voorheesville, Niskayuna and Bethlehem Central. Only one of those districts has what sociologist and political scientist Charles Murray would call a “Super Zip.”
The American Enterprise Institute scholar coined the “super” phrase to describe the most prosperous, highly educated demographic clusters in the country. Zip codes themselves were just a means for the United States Postal Service to define a territory within which mail is delivered. What has been observed over time are pocket communities that have been sought after for their unique combination of amenities. Property values rise and develop into affluent neighborhoods.
In November 2013, Washington Post reporters Ted Melinik and Carol Morello named neighborhoods where the “typical” household income was more than $120,000, and 68 percent of adult residents held college degrees. At the time, 650 communities confined by postal code, were identified as Super Zips.
In the Washington Post report, Delmar and Slingerlands were on the cusp. Melinik and Morello attributed a number between 0 and 99 representing the area’s average percentile rank in both college education and income. Super Zips were 95 or above. Delmar scored a 93 and Slingerlands a 91.
But, that was seven years ago.
When statisticians speak of averages they usually speak of one of two different numbers — mean and median. The layman’s definition of median is what number lies in the middle of a field of many numbers. The mean takes the sum of those numbers from that field and divides it by the number of occurrences, like the grades on your report card. Statisticians tend to like medians because they recognize anomalies — one very large or small number — can skew the average off the more practical middle.
Based on Murray’s definition of a Super Zip, Delmar still falls short. According to American Community Survey data, 68 percent of Delmartians possess a college degree. The U.S. Census states that its median household income is only $100,677. However, the mean household income is $125,375, meeting both thresholds to be defined as a Super Zip.
No matter how you massage the numbers, Slingerlands still falls short of qualifying as a Super Zip. You can flip the switch from median to mean household income and derive to $138,820, but it falls a few percentage points short in education. Only 63 percent of adults own a degree.
So, what does a Super Zip look like? Well, it goes back to defining those highly sought after amenities. When VanLuven was looking for a new hometown, he wasn’t far off.
Libraries serve as a good gauge to measure a community, said VanLuven. Like visiting the home of a new acquaintance, he looked over the CD collection at Bethlehem Public Library. He’s a fan of music, anything from pianist and composer Philip Glass to Australian electronic rock band Pendulum.
“It had a really strong opera and jazz section,” he said. “It wasn’t just pop. It was an eclectic mix. I felt that that said a lot about the people going to the library, in addition to what the library was.”
That helped convince VanLuven and his wife, Isabelle Bleecker, to buy a home in Delmar. They have since spent nearly 20 years calling it home along with their three daughters Catie, Juliette and Emma.
Realtors would describe the current environment as a “seller’s market.” In a supply-and-demand game, those looking to buy in Delmar far exceed those who are selling, driving the price for available properties up. It also heightens the sense of urgency for buyers to place a bid once they see a home within their price range.
The average sale price has soared in recent years. Since March 2015, where Zillow.com reports the average Delmar home priced at $241,000, that figure climbed to a high of $283,000 last May. Since a dip in the market that witnessed the price of that same home drop to $276,000 last October, the market has been climbing.
The current hot real estate market is not exclusive to the Delmar zip code. That same pattern of consumer behavior has been witnessed in surrounding neighborhoods, too. Though $276,000 is high, it’s lower than Guiderland’s $281,000 (12084). It’s also lower than the overall $290,000 figure across Bethlehem. Slingerlands (12159) bucks the curve while boasting a median home value of $361,000.
But, the homes that do sell in Delmar go quickly. According to Global MLS, 232 homes sold in Delmar in 2019. The average median price for those homes was approximately $280,000. And, as houses across the Capital District stayed on the market for a little over two months, those in the 12054 zip code sold in 33 days.
The hamlet of Delmar is defined by its Four Corners. Its two busiest streets continue to be Kenwood and Delaware avenues. Where the two intersect you will still find a grocery store, a handful of shops, several houses of worship, a funeral home and a few restaurants. Town Hall and its post office have moved a little further away over the years, but they both remain within walking distance of the intersection. In terms of real estate, that walkability factor is key.
“A lot of people who are moving into the Delmar area are looking for a bedroom community that has walkability,” said real estate broker Judi Gabler. She said, home shoppers are looking at top-rated school districts, but they also want to walk to the farmer’s market, the local coffee shop and the wine bar. “I think knowing that they are going to be a part of a town and a community that is efficient and has entertainment, they can live comfortably here.”
Bethlehem is often called a “bedroom community.” It’s another way of calling a town boring. Business owners hate it. Residents may balk at it. But, in terms of crime activity, it’s a welcomed way to call your neighborhood safe.
Numbers specific to Delmar were unavailable, but Bethlehem police were dispatched to nearly 22,000 calls in 2018. By comparison, Guilderland police responded to more than 28,000 calls. The two towns are nearly identical to one another. Guilderland, which stands between both Albany and Schenectady, has a population of 35,000. Bethlehem has almost 34,000 residents. The largest factor that divides the two, however, is Crossgates Mall. The mall drives more than 20 million guests each year, and with that, draws more instances for crime.
Bethlehem police states its highest concern is traffic safety. Of the dispatch calls in 2018, nearly 900 involved auto related property damage. Violent crimes are almost non-existent. Police were dispatched to 286 violent crimes throughout the town that year, roughly 1 percent of all their calls. Among them were 26 assaults and 27 fights. In contrast, police responded to 39 calls of youth being annoying.
Cappex.com is an online service that helps high school students and their parents weed through prospective colleges. Users can cross reference schools based on their classroom performance. They can wait for messages to hit their email account, and investigate their chances of getting into schools based on factors such as their SAT scores.
According to several sources, the national average SAT score resides around 1050. Package that with good grades and the Princeton Review states a student has a “solid chance” of earning admission to several schools. In 2019, Bethlehem Central students scored a mean average of 1,236. Cappex states that a 1200 score ranks at approximately the 74th percentile, making it possible for that student to be competitive for admission at a “sizable number of colleges” throughout the nation.
Last May, Bethlehem Central High School was named the top ranked public high school in the Capital District in U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best High Schools Rankings. Nationally, the school ranked at No. 917 out of 23,000 high schools reviewed by the publication.
“The district’s reputation is well known so it is actually something our candidates often mention, not the other way around,” said Bethlehem Central Superintendent Jody Monroe, when asked how prospective educators are vetted for employment. “Instead we focus on hiring the most qualified individuals and impress upon them that our students come to us with different abilities and unique learning styles. And our mission is to educate and prepare each and every one of them to reach their potential. We want our teachers and staff to understand that this mission extends beyond academics to enriching the lives of students in the areas of character, community and wellness so that when students leave us they go on to be healthy, happy and successful adults.”
Bethlehem Central graduated 97 percent of its seniors last year, and 93 percent had plans to attend college. But, once those students finish college with a degree in hand, they may not be able to earn enough to purchase their own one-family house in their hometown.
More than half of Bethlehem homeowners possess a mortgage payment that exceeds $2,000 a month. That’s according to a Capital District Regional Planning Commission report commissioned by the Town of Bethlehem. The 69-page report paints Bethlehem as a “highly educated community.” A majority of residents are in business, management, science and the arts, all of which require advanced education: one out of three people who live here have a graduate or professional degree.
The report suggests that mortgage bill “may be difficult” for the average Albany County family that earns a median household income of $65,743, alluding to a condition the Washington Post addressed the exclusive nature of a Super Zip community.
Bethlehem has more owner-occupied homes (75.8 percent) than the rest of the country (63.8), leaving a small amount of rental properties available. Only one fourth of housing units are rented. The report left to question whether the town should be concerned with a “limited supply of attainable and affordable housing.”
The report also forcasts that the predominantly white community within Bethlehem is growing even less diverse.
“Census Bureau data suggests that Bethlehem may have gotten less racially diverse since 2008,” the report stated, adding that nine out of ten Bethlehem residents are white, non-Hispanic (90.3 percent).
“It’s getting harder and harder to buy in Delmar,” said Gabler. She added that the present market continues to drive home values up “just by being an ideal place to live for the majority of buyers looking for something like this.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.