Mayor Weinberger’s Pointless Housing Summit

In early September Mayor Weinberger will have a second public meeting to discuss what housing policies the city will focus on over the next two years. However, whatever comes out of that meeting will be entirely useless, as everything has been decided by housing interests, business interests, and government insiders, many of whom don’t even live in Burlington. The winners will be those with wealth and real estate, while the losers will be low-wage service/retail workers and renters, the ignored backbone of Burlington’s college and tourist economy.

I’ll let the data do some of the speaking for me.

1/3rd of people making our city’s policy don’t even live in the city.
Of the 2/3rds of attendees that were Burlington residents, only 40% of those were renters. Total, only 25% of attendees were Burlington renters even though they make up 60% of residents.

The biggest shocker is how unrepresentative the backgrounds of those who attended the housing summit were. Over 70% of attendees were there for work; they represented for-profit and non-profit housing organizations, business groups, local government employees, and those in finance/law. The majority of ‘stakeholders’ of this housing summit weren’t Burlington renters, weren’t service workers, but were folks who had to be there for work or had a direct financial stake in the final result.

Mayor Weinberger will tell you that the Housing Summit was an inclusive process which will help all residents, especially low-income and marginalized residents. Don’t believe the bullshit and spin, as few of those folks were included in the process – it was another sham process with a predetermined outcome, one which continues to enrich the wealthy area residents while disenfranchising low-income residents.

Who Does Burlington’s Electric Department/Bike Share Help Most?

Over the past couple of years Burlington, and in particular Burlington Electric Department, have rolled out several initiatives that leaders claim are meant to help low-income residents. Yet these incentives, often in the form of rebates, are handouts to a handful of individual wealthy residents while doing absolutely nothing to make our environment fairer for those at the bottom, for those experiencing climate change the hardest.

Take for example, Burlington Electric’s plan last year to give a rebate to low and moderate income residents. Many of us questioned how a low-income resident can have a spare $10,000+ to spend on a new car, or $250+ a month for car payments. In May VPR looked at the program and found it to be an utter failure. 4% of rebates went to those with moderate or low incomes, and 2% of the money from rebates went to those folks. Yet Darren Springer had to try to spin this as a successful program.

“I consider it a starting point really,” said Darren Springer, the utility’s new manager. “I think we want to do much, much more in this space. We want to make it so that every customer who is interested in electric vehicles can access them.”

Springer said the rebate is not just about helping low-income people join the energy revolution — it’s also to help Burlington Electric meet a state mandate.

These $80,000 would have been better spent adding more buses to our meek public transit system, so that buses could be more consistent. The money could have been used to run better bus services on weekends. It could have been used to give out 1300 free bus passes to low-income residents, or try a trial program of universal free buses. All of this would have done more to reduce emissions than helping 75 wealthy people, who don’t need the money, to buy a new electric vehicle.

None of the bike corrals are placed in low-income communities.

On top of this, Burlington Electric is now giving away $100 rebates for homeowners or $3500 rebates to lawn care businesses for electric mowers. Rebates for wealthier homeowners and business owners, nothing for low-income workers and renters.

The problem with neoliberal environmentalism, which is entirely based on individual solutions (like the class-biased bike share program above) and not community-oriented solutions, is that the folks most likely to access these services are those already with means. Our city’s ‘environmental’ programs are never used by those who we are told is the intended target. For a public utility, they sure seem focused on helping those who need support the least.

Burlington Needs a Wealth Tax

With Mayor Weinberger putting on a housing summit next month, now is the time to advocate for bold, meaningful policies that redistribute wealth in a way to ensure that nobody has to live unwalled. A wealth tax on millionaires will raise $7.5 million a year for low-income housing projects throughout the city.

Burlington has over 400 for-profit, private, millionaires who own a combined $1.5 billion in property wealth, more than the combined wealth of UVM and the UVM Medical Center. Not only are these 1%ers’ property often taxed at assessed rates much less than their value, but taxing their wealth would help pay for desperately needed low-income housing, without negatively affecting the vast majority of Burlington workers and residents.

Every Burlington Millionaire by Land Wealth – (Click to Enlarge)

The current Housing Trust Fund, funded to the tune of a measly $520,000 a year, can outright fund the construction of only 2 low-income units every year, yet the city needs to build over 5,000 homes for low and moderate-income residents (making less than 80% of the Area Median Income – AMI) to meet our city’s housing needs, yet only 170 homes for those making over 80% AMI. In fact, 2,900 low-income households are paying more than 50% of their income in housing. (Can be found on the city’s Consolidated Housing Plan draft, Page 10.)

Unfortunately, Mayor Weinberger and the City Council seem to think market rate housing, which is affordable to those making 100% AMI, will somehow solve the 5,000 units of low-income housing that these folks need. According to the same Consolidated Housing Plan, 170 folks making between 80%-100% AMI are paying 30% or more on rent, while 0 are paying 50% of their income or more.

If we taxed these millionaires at an additional one half of one percent, .5% every year, the city could raise an additional $7.6 million dollars a year for low-income housing. According to the city’s recent Inclusionary Zoning report, this money could fully fund and build an additional 30 units of truly low-income housing every year. With loans, financing, and low-income tax credits, that number increases even more. As an example, Redstone’s building at 258 North Winooski Ave, with 23 units and 41 bedrooms, along with first-floor retail space, cost roughly $3.5 million dollars. Even with overhead and maintenance, likely 50+ units of permanently and truly affordable low-income housing could be built every year in Burlington, 25x more than is currently built.

Even if we decided to be cheap, and only tax these 400 millionaires at one tenth of one percent, or .1%, we could still raise $1,500,000 a year for housing, 3x more than our Mayor and Council have dedicated to housing over this last decade.

In conclusion: Tax the wealth of the wealthiest 1% of landowners so that everyone can have safe, affordable housing. It’s easy and would actually put some money where our values supposedly are.

Burlington’s Land and Housing is Controlled By a Wealthy Few

Burlington is a town of extremes. 1% of residents control housing for 50-60% of the population, totaling nearly $3 billion in property. This staggering level of wealth concentrated in the hands of 500 individuals contradicts the idea that 1) there isn’t enough wealth in Burlington to clothe, feed, house, and educate every Burlington resident and 2) that Burlington and its local housing institutions are inclusive or democratic.

The extreme wealth, and the power that comes with that wealth and control of housing stock, are in the hands of a few individuals – local colleges, local non-profit landlords, and local for-profit landlords. The few dozen board members of these colleges and non-profits, most of whom are wealthy and far removed from the ‘working class’, make important decisions that affect all of us behind closed-doors.

UVM, the UVM Medical Center, and Champlain College own a combined $1.1 billion dollars in assets, along with 7200 bedrooms serving 11,000+ student renters. While Champlain College pays taxes on most of their assessed properties (granted, some of their assessments online are so grossly low it should be laughable), UVM and the UVM Medical Center don’t pay a dime in property taxes on their combined $1 billion in assets. And since there is no local Burlington income tax, most of the income generated at these institutions, along with their tax bases, flee to the suburbs every night.

These institutions are all run by carefully selected boards of the county’s business, development, financial, and political elites, along with 6 and 7 figure CEOs. Of the 25 UVM trustees, less than half (12) are either students or legislators. Of Champlain College’s 26 trustees, several are millionaire developers themselves. Of the 17 UVM Medical Center trustees, 4 (including the $2 million-a-year-salary CEO are medical professionals). Of the 68 people in charge, at most maybe 10-15% are not in the wealthiest 20% of residents.

Local non-profit housing landlords also have their fair share of wealth and power. Combined, these organizations own a (very under-assessed) $165 million in property, while controlling 3,175 bedrooms. These organizations pay little in property taxes, under the assumption that by offering rent below-market, they are performing a social and community good.

These non-profit boards, while often made up more of professional-class Vermonters than the 6 and 7-figure Vermonters of our medical/collegiate institutions, are limited in number and scope. None of these groups have majority boards made up of the working-class or low-income clients they serve. CHT has 15 board members, 5 of whom (33%) are actual clients served by the organization. BHA has 5 wealthier board members, selected by the (also wealthy) city council. Cathedral Square has 12 board members, most of whom are much wealthier than the other two non-profit boards (including, for some reason, Erik Hoekstra of Redstone in an uncomfortable, and incestuous, conflict of interest). Of these 32 folks, only 15% likely come from the bottom 80%.

The list of our city’s 400 millionaires – for-profit residential landlords, homeowners, and commercial landlords, is long. Their combined wealth is $1.5 billion dollars and they control a total of 12,100 bedrooms.

These 500 individuals, the millionaires + board members, control assets easily valued near $3 billion. In a city where 30,000 people have $0 in property assets, this is staggering wealth inequality. Not only that, but these folks control, 22,475 beds, or nearly 30,000 renters (when we factor in the average number of residents per bedroom at 1.33), giving them direct influence over the lives of over 50% of all residents of the city.

It’s worth wondering who impacts your life more on a daily basis – Congress in Washington DC, or the 500 wealthiest and most powerful Vermonters in your own backyard? And it’s worth wondering what, exactly, can we do to give power back to renters and workers?

The Ultimate NIMBYs in Burlington are Wealthy Condo/Mansion-Owners

(You can view a larger, full-screen map here.)

Last post I discussed how 25% of single and double-unit homes in Burlington are investment rental properties, making it harder for lower-income people to live and thrive in Burlington. While I mentioned that zoning plays a role in this, albeit a limited one, today I wanted to show how those with money and wealth, including Mayor Weinberger, are the ultimate NIMBYs, working to make sure that there are limited opportunities for new or different residents to move into their neighborhoods, while aggressively pushing denser development in other neighborhoods.

I have mapped all 670+ single-family mansions and luxury condos worth over $500,000*. Of these 670 homes, 120 (18%) are second homes. These homes make up the top 10% wealthiest single-unit homes in the city, making them the wealthiest 4% (by home value) residents in the city. Combined wealth is $465 million.

If we decided to create a luxury housing/mansion tax in the city on these homes, depending on our pricing scheme, which I will write about in a later post, (yearly flat home value tax of .1% (one tenth of one percent), flat tax of .5% (half of one percent), we could be raising anywhere from $500,000 to $2,500,000 A YEAR for low-income housing, which is a helluva lot more than we are doing now as a city.

The map is crude but you get the point.

What you will quickly notice is that the vast majority of wealthy homes, 94%, exist in only 4 spaces throughout the city. They are either in the south end on the hill section with nice lake views (Tracts 39-1 and 39-2), in the south end by the water (Tracts 10-2, and 11-2 ), downtown in luxury condos (Tract 10-1 ) or in the New North End by the water (Tract 2-3 without Rockpoint). These areas have some of the lowest population densities in the city, and if we tracked population by street or neighborhood I’m certain these numbers would be even lower.

Except for the luxury condos downtown, almost every mansion/luxury condo was built in areas that are zoned for low-residential density. In fact, our own Mayor Weinberger, a strong proponent of ‘in-fill’ development and ‘denser development by building up’ lives in one of these mansions on the hill, where he is protected by zoning from every worrying about losing his perfect lake view, from ever worrying about traffic, noise, pollution, trash, or any of the other issues that come with actual city living.

The ultimate NIMBYs aren’t small homeowners or renters concerned about the negative effects of gentrification, but rather the wealthiest 10% of homeowners who live in low-density neighborhoods, and who regularly vote for and advocate for, zoning that keeps their neighborhoods with few people and large homes, while pushing density to poorer neighborhoods that are already quite dense, like the Old North End.

*For data purposes, I included all housing that either had a recent sale price of over $500,000 or a home assessed at over $450,000 (homes are generally assessed at less than 90% of value).

Can’t Afford A Home in Burlington? Blame Landlords, Realtors, and Homeowners

(You can access a full-screen map here.)

Burlington is an expensive place to live. With a limited supply of single and two family homes, whether they be condos, mobile homes, or standalone single-family housing, it’s tough for Burlington’s low-income renters to afford stable housing. In fact, 25% of all homes in the city are rented out as investment properties. Blame this on landlords, realtors, and homeowners.

With over 2100 units of housing (13% of all housing in the city) and 6700 beds (17% of all beds in the city) being rented out by investors, rented on Airbnb, or owned as a second home, there are few if any affordable homes left for people to buy. Without housing protections and limits, without zoning changes in wealthy low-residential areas, without a real public investment in long-term low-income housing, too many of these homes are easily converted into investment properties, selling for prices that are out of reach for most families and middle-income workers. This benefits some folks, mainly realtors, homeowners, and landlords, while the majority of us suffer with few options.

It’s interesting to see where and how much of different types of housing have been turned into rentals. Single family homes are rented throughout the city, but are most clustered around UVM, legally allowed through grandfather clauses, rented out to college students often in unofficial frats and sororities. Most two family homes, historically a way for poorer families to afford housing, are rented out in the Old North End. Condos tend to be spread out around city edges, not as much dispersed in communities but built in stark, repetitive and ugly, giant condo developments that are removed from actual neighborhoods. Expect ‘Cambrian Rise’ to offer much of the same.

The toughest part about staying in Burlington as a low-income renter and community mental health worker is that most new developments are rentals, and even new condos will be expensive, in ugly condo complexes, and many will likely be bought as investment properties, making it harder and harder for low and moderate-income residents to exist, never mind thrive, in Burlington.

Who are Burlington’s Largest Landlords?

After a year of research I’m proud to share my research around housing in Burlington. This map shows which landlords own at least 100 beds and how much they own. If you want to look at a full screen map, click here.

In a town where 60% of residents own $0 housing wealth, the wealth gap continues to grow, leaving a few hundred wealthy landlords with immense wealth, while the vast majority of residents have little or no wealth at all. In total, property owned by these 27 landlords, just in Burlington, is conservatively valued at $1.23 billion dollars. Yes, you read that right. They own over HALF of all housing units in the city and over 40% of all beds, totaling 16,600 beds and 8,600 total units of housing.

Even if we look just at large for-profit and non-profit landlords, (we can talk about the immense influence UVM and Champlain College exert over our rental costs another day) the wealth these private individuals and organizations own, and number of housing units they control, means a handful of folks exert enormous influence over most of our lives.

The true ‘market’ value is likely upwards of $300 million, but the data is harder to parse as non-profits aren’t always assessed like for-profit buildings.

The 23 largest private, for-profit landlords own nearly $400 million in property, with a median personal wealth of $11 million. They own over 3,101 units and 6,056 bedrooms, or 19% of all units and 15% of all bedrooms in the city.

How do we, as tenants, gain control when a handful of individuals have such influence over our lives? By working together, through solidarity, and forming a tenants’ union. While we may not have much wealth we do have numbers – in fact if all renters voted, we would be easily able to vote for rent control, better enforcement, swifter and harsher penalties when landlords fail to act, public lawyers to represent us, and other rent and tenant protections.

To Ensure Justice, Police Departments and Local News Must Stop Publicly Shaming

No one wants their photo taken and shared around the internet on the worst day of their life, yet Vermont police departments, with the assistance of local Vermont media, do just that by publishing the mugshots of arrestees.

It is good for police departments to share data and news of the work they are doing and for the press to keep citizens informed. Too often however, departments publish official press releases with the photographs of arrested individuals and a story, often reprinted by local media, that solidifies a narrative of criminality that will follow and tar these individuals forever. No matter the intent, the impact is one of public shaming and ostracizing.

Several years ago leaders in South Burlington recognized the harms of public shaming. Then-Chief Whipple decided to end his department’s practice of publishing mugshots on social media. He noted that there was often “a flurry of inappropriate comments,” and that the pictures could prevent a person from successfully completing rehabilitation and reintegrating into the community.

Published mugshots make it harder for our criminal justice system to successfully function. Innocent Vermonters, wrongfully or mistakenly arrested, have their lives and reputations ruined. For those who are charged with crimes they committed, shared mugshots make it more difficult for people to see themselves as having value and potential, all while making it harder for them to secure stable employment and housing, increasing the likelihood that recidivism will occur. Some companies, recognizing how much damage mugshots can cause, have even begun to extort arrestees, demanding payment to remove mugshots from their companies’ websites.

The police and press can inform the public without public shaming, creating policies that ensure equal treatment for all parties. Ideally, any policy would address social media publications and cover the following subjects at a minimum:

  • When (if ever) will pictures of arrested and/or convicted people be published, and how long will they remain up for.
  • What will be done if this arrested or convicted person is found innocent or is charged with a lesser crime.
  • How (and if) comment sections will be monitored.
  • If social media posts will be shareable.

Surprisingly, very few organizations in the state of Vermont have written policies on mugshots or other forms of public shaming. All of our police departments and our press could take a positive step, exemplifying Vermont values of compassion and justice, by developing policies that prevent public shaming and contribute to building stronger Vermont communities through rehabilitation and restorative justice.

Who Does Chief del Pozo Serve and Protect?

Del Pozo has a history of acting as both a police chief and a judge, inserting himself into private citizens’ and other officials’ jurisdiction through the media and social media, while also erratically choosing if, when, and how much, public information will be shared. The recent police altercation with Burlington 16-year-old Phin Brown is especially telling of the Chief’s impulsiveness and need to stay in the limelight, while also highlighting the trouble he has separating his personal feelings from his professional work. Del Pozo’s social media presence revolves not around transparency, justice, or community policing, but rather around boosting and protecting his personal profile and narrative.

Del Pozo’s checkered social media presence goes back to at least the summer of 2017, when former Burlington City Councilor Bedrosian brought a complaint to the city council regarding inappropriate messaging from del Pozo. The concerns eventually even made its way into Seven Days, but his behavior has never corrected.

The confusion around del Pozo’s social media presence is that his public persona is so intertwined with the Burlington Police Department’s social media that it’s often hard to tell where del Pozo begins and the department ends. He seems to decide whether he is representing himself or the department in any given situation not based on any consistent or transparent system, but rather by what will serve him best.

Phin Brown’s complaint against Burlington police officers, and del Pozo’s reaction to that complaint, highlight this increasingly problematic dynamic. It’s not just del Pozo’s unwillingness to even entertain meaningful oversight over himself or his department, but his total inability, while expecting everyone else involved in the criminal justice system, to accept personal responsibility and do reparative work.

In fact del Pozo’s inability to take responsibility was front and center during Phin Brown’s media storm. Not only did del Pozo release private information about a minor, but according to VTDigger, he also stated,

“I don’t have the authority or role of analyzing or intervening or opinion-ing on Secret Service operations,” del Pozo said. “I urge people to ask the Secret Service for an account of what they’ve done and reconcile it with the concerns of the citizen.”

Yet when it serves del Pozo’s narrative, he has no problem commenting on other law enforcement and their operations. For example,

On top of this, Del Pozo seems to believe in transparency only when he can control both the narrative and outcome, which is why he repeatedly aired private information about Phin Brown, a minor. More examples include:

In each instance del Pozo made a unilateral choice not connected to department values, but rather to his public persona and personal feelings. This behavior is concerning because laws and policies should be applied equally and evenly, democratically overseen by a group of elected citizens, not decided by a single person who has a personal stake and very public reputation in each outcome. We need a police chief who is a public servant invested in the entire community, not a chief who acts more like a politician always looking for positive press and public accolades.

Who does Chief del Pozo protect and serve? Himself.

Does Vermont Weatherization Program Hurt Low Income Renters?

Recently the Vermont legislature voted to raise the tax on heating oil a modest amount to help fund the state’s weatherization program. While the tax comes from good intentions, the program in practice will be taking money from low-income renters and giving that money to low-income homeowners and wealthier, often absentee, landlords.

The weatherization program, along with the federally funded Burlington Lead Program, have similar successes and challenges. Any Vermonter making less than 80% Area Median Income (AMI) can have the state help pay to insulate their house and lower heating bills. That’s good for low-income homeowners, since most low-income Vermonters cannot afford such improvements to their housing.

However, the program also applies to renters making less than 80% AMI, and it is not clear if these improvement help low-income tenants in perpetuity. Like the state’s ‘business incentive program’, while there are quality control oversights, there are no clear benchmarks that landlords must follow, no maximum rent restrictions after they have completed the work, and it’s not clear if there is any organization keeping track of what happens to low-income renters after improvements have been made to make sure landlords don’t see them as a free investment.

Landlords get free repairs and investment in their private business from the government, upwards of $8,000 per unit, with few strings attached. On top of this, the program only requires for multi-unit buildings that 25% of tenants are low income or 50% of the units are rented at 80% AMI. Rent stabilization is required if a landlord has a lien on it, but the stabilization only lasts one year. Rent stabilization is also required if the repairs cost more than the total savings, but there is no publicly available data to know if these actually happen, how often, and how long.

While weatherization and other programs help low-income homeowners, there needs to be more oversight to ensure that wealthier landlords, especially negligent and absentee slumlords, do not get this money with few strings attached. There needs to be guarantees that landlords cannot raise rents post-weatherization or evict tenants ‘by right’. There also needs to be a mechanism to fine absentee landlords who won’t weatherize their units to the detriment of their tenants. Until then, this program, especially considering the new funding source, will likely hurt low-income renters at the expense of wealthier landlords.