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%.

Click to Enlarge

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.

The Downtown Improvement District Exposed Burlington’s Pathetic Public Processes

(You Can Read More About the Downtown Improvement District and Burlington Business Association here.)

When local government thinks and act like a business, everyone but business owners and landlords lose. Burlington’s Downtown Improvement District (DID) process shows that while ‘stakeholders’ and self-selecting and unscientific ‘focus groups’ may work for businesses, they are quite useless and even harmful for effective, local democratic government. Lousy and rushed public processes have become a hallmark of Burlington’s Weinberger administration, and the DID process was the ugliest process yet.

Just take a look at the list of stakeholders included in the 38+ person PUMA focus groups to see how these meetings were made up of predetermined interest groups, not a cross section of local residents. PUMA met with ‘stakeholders’, interest groups with power or influence in a system, while obviously excluding more marginalized and disconnected citizens.

Even the online survey was heavily skewed towards native-English speakers with high levels of wealth. DID supporters, including the Burlington Business Association, who sent out the RFP for the survey in a clear conflict of interest and blurring of government and business lobbying, touted this flawed focus group and survey as evidence of mass public support for a new business district. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that the 1,143 survey respondents, the bulk of collected ‘public’ opinion, were even asked if they supported a Downtown Improvement District.

The survey respondents were far, far wealthier and much, much older than the average Burlington resident. Those making over $100,000+ a year were over-represented by 20%, while those making under $50,000 a year, half of all Burlington residents, were under-represented by 33%. Young adults were under-represented by 31%.

” Mayor Weinberger, speaking at the Democrats’ party, said the DID expansion proposal marked a “very big change” that voters weren’t ready for. He said the authorization request left many details to be ironed out later, which made it hard to quell voters’ doubts. ” – Seven Days

The Downtown Improvement District is another in a long line of ‘public’ processes with very limited participation and predetermined outcomes. These processes are pinned on a series of lies that are designed to give the appearance of collaborative and inclusive democracy, while bowing to wealthy business and real estate interests. These lies further erode trust in our local government, further depresses daily civic participation, and leaves residents feeling powerless and disconnected from their own community.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) offers False and Flimsy Promises

The city of Burlington loves Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) – whether it be for the Moran Plant, waterfront improvements, the mall redevelopment, or the nontransparent private marina process – even though TIFs are seriously flawed. TIFs are sold on flimsy and false promises – from helping low income communities to boosting the economy when it wouldn’t have been boosted otherwise. On top of this, TIFs in practice are undemocratic. Politicians will ask voters to approve a supposed done deal but they often amount to a blank check finalized behind closed doors by a select few. It’s time to end TIFs and invest public funds in low-income communities.

TIFs are districts where cities can ‘leverage’ private investment by borrowing on future property value increases. While there may be some benefits, those benefits are unproven and do not outweigh the many many downsides to TIFs.

The 6 problems with TIFs:

  1. Once you vote on the idea, you don’t get to choose the final product even if the final product is drastically different than the initial idea. See: private marina, mall redevelopment, City Hall Park.
  2. Since the goal line on TIF projects always changes, it’s impossible to hold elected officials responsible for failing to act on their words. For example, first the $20 million mall TIF would buy a couple streets and fix streets around the mall, but in the final weeks before the vote it included fixing an additional two streets to get voters to approve it.
  3. While TIF money may have originally been used to help struggling downtowns, it is now used in mainly wealthy downtowns to improve infrastructure for wealthy land owners. For example, the mall is owned by a multi-billion dollar investment company but supposedly wouldn’t build this project unless taxpayers gave them 9% of their funding costs for free. TIF money never seems to be used for programs to support those in poverty, like funding new low-income housing.
  4. TIFs hurts our public schools by taking desperately-needed millions out of the education fund for 20+ years, as TIFs money is split 75/25 education fund and general fund. The money used to improve our downtown never reaches Burlington’s low income children.
  5. TIFs raise rents and cost of living for everyone else by accelerating property values in urban areas past typical levels of inflation. They, like Downtown Improvement Districts, lead to accelerated gentrification.
  6. TIFs are sold as being integral to spurring new development, but are based on a false and unproven assumption that the development wouldn’t have occurred ‘but for’ TIF money. In fact, the ‘but for’ clause means ‘but for that specific design/development plan’. So we have no way of knowing if some level of development would have occurred regardless. Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer has made is clear that this ‘but for’ clause is impossible to prove or audit.

The reality is that MANY people, when they vote for TIF, they vote for a specific project without realizing they’re writing a blank check for politicians who may be more interested in making wealthy interests and donors happy over ensuring the community meets everybody’s needs.

In the end, TIF money gambles on the future with little oversight or proof of its effectiveness. It takes badly needed property tax revenue, money that our schools desperately need, and gives it to investors so that they can boost their profits and wealth for the next 20 years while taxpayers pick up the tab. It’s time to end TIFs and fund local government through taxes, and if necessary, bonds.

UVM and Champlain College’s Admission Process Is Fueling Burlington’s Gentrification

UVM and Champlain College have a lot of power in shaping our community, in both positive and negative ways. We often hear about how 40% of UVM’s students living off campus increases non-students’ housing costs, and I’ve written about how as two of the city’s largest landlords with a captured client base, their exorbitant room and board costs likely distort rents citywide. There’s a third way that UVM and Champlain College contribute to Burlington’s gentrification, and that’s their admissions processes which are highly geared towards very wealthy families.

Thanks to the New York Times we can see a snapshot of UVM and Champlain College students’ economic backgrounds and how they compare to Burlington’s residents in 2016. Both schools have high rates of students from very wealthy backgrounds and low rates of students from very poor backgrounds, particularly when compared to Burlington residents. The median college student family is nearly 3 times as wealthy as the median Burlington family.

According to their data, not only are more than half of UVM and Champlain students from the top 20% wealthiest families, but only 4%-6% of students came from the bottom 20%. College students in Burlington are wealthy at 3 times the rate that Burlington residents are, while Burlington residents have 5-8 times higher rates of poverty than college students in Burlington.

These schools function less like educational institutions striving towards equity and more like businesses trying to maximize profits and growth. That’s the reason students and faculty are fighting against the administrations’ cuts to programs that aren’t ‘making money’.

More students come from families making $2.2 million a year than families making under $22,800 a year. A full 8,000 students come from families wealthier than 82% of all Burlington households.

NYTimes data shows that the trend of students coming from families much wealthier than Burlington residents has been consistent or increasing for decades. While UVM has become slightly less accessible since the early 2000s, Champlain College has catered towards significantly wealthier students and is their student body is now comparable to UVM’s.

How does an admissions process that caters to wealthy students effect low and moderate income Burlington residents? How does this process hurt low-income college students? How is such a model sustainable, and how do we keep Burlington from becoming an elite town for wealthy students and the business community that caters to them? Lastly, who is holding UVM and Champlain responsible for their role in hastening gentrification and making life harder for Burlington’s low income residents including low-income college students?