Over the past year I’ve worked to highlight stories not often told by our local media. I’m proud of how my research, in particular on the lack of marginalized voices on boards and commissions, helped steer the most recent mayoral race around conversations on access and inclusion for marginalized voices in Burlington. I want to write and investigate more, with more graphs and charts than any one person would ever want. Right now though, working full-time as a teacher, my time and energy are quite limited. I have been unable to write as frequently as I’d like.
Which is why I’m humbly asking for your help. On the right side of the screen and under each post, you will see a button for Patreon, a monthly art-donation service. If you like what I’ve written thus far and would like to see a lot more of it, I’ll need some money to cover the countless hours I’ve put into research, data collection, and interviews for this blog, and the countless more hours I want to invest in challenging the status quo.
I know that as our local government ignores the plight of those at the margins, it may be hard to justify giving money to a local blog. I hope you can recognize that we share the same goal – I’ve just chosen to support that goal from a different angle, working outside of a system that reinforces the status quo.
I’ve got a whole bunch of rewards and goals that I hope may entice you. If you can give any bit of money, even just $1 a month, it will go a long way towards supporting my journalistic goals.
I’ve been able to help reframe the political conversation in Burlington, and I hope I can continue to do so in the months and years to come.
After my 3-part series last year on Burlington’s unrepresentative boards and commissions, I spent a good deal of time thinking about why that is the case and how we could change the process so that marginalized voices are included in our local government. This is list is neither complete nor full of the best ideas – I am after all only one privileged white male, but I hope that this can get you to think about concrete ways for our commissions to include marginalized residents. Of course, a better perspective would be to go out and ask those folks yourself.
1. Make the process as apolitical as possible.
The current process to get on a commission is a byzantine political affair where you have to apply to the position, try talking to as many city councilors as possible, then show up for an awkward interview. Then councilors from different parties then meet and trade spots on different commissions, regardless of whether the person being put forward would be the best person to offer an important and different perspective. It’s hard to tell how much the application or interview actually matters in the councilors’ minds, and it seems that the process is less about creating diverse commissions that can speak to the many diverse needs of our community and more about who is friends with whom and who is owed a favor for doing _____ for whichever party.
A very apolitical process? Make the goal of commission appointments about bringing a diverse array of marginalizes perspectives to every committee. (It’s as if there’s a whole bunch of diversity and inclusion initiatives that the city seems to regularly forget about.) Councilors should be excluded from the application process entirely, and recuse themselves if someone they know is applying. Then, councilors should be given completed applications without names or any specific references to who the applicant is, and councilors should to vote then and there who they want on the commission, while having to explain how the applicant of their choice meets the city’s goal of diversity and inclusion. Too often commissioners know the councilors and vice versa, making it all the harder for marginalized folks to get appointed.
2. Change the application.
Change the application so it’s easy to fill out online, is marked clearly on the city website (seriously try to find the list of open commission seats and what those commissions do from the city’s homepage), doesn’t require you to tell your educational background (unless those with less education are considered marginalized voices) and doesn’t require you to write in references (a way to make the process a who’s who affair, to signal that you are part of the ‘in’ crowd).
3. Advertise open positions, and put $ behind going out into the community to recruit folks from marginalized communities.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you want marginalized members of the community to apply, you need to do the work and seek them out and invite them in. This won’t be perfect, especially if folks don’t get on commissions the first time, but there’s clearly a need for more commissioners who aren’t wealthy and white to apply.
4. Limit the number of terms per member to 2 terms max.
Being on a commission shouldn’t be something you do for life. Unfortunately, there are no term limits in Burlington for councilors, mayors, or commissioners. One commissioner on the Parks and Rec commission has been on it for over 20 years. Get rid of the lifers so that every few years fresh perspectives can be brought in. There are lots of opportunities for others folks to stay involved, like joining the many fundraising sister organizations (Friends of Fletcher Free, Parks Foundation, etc).
5. Stop relying on private lawyers to do the work of our public lawyers, and hire more city attorneys if we don’t have enough.
When I looked at commissions in 2016 I found a startling statistic – 9 out of 21 commissions, or 43% of commissions, had at least 1 lawyer on the commission (one commission had 4!). Too often in local government we want folks to use their legal expertise to help commissions and city departments because we don’t budget enough money for city attorneys to do that work for us. It’s an argument that was heard often around Burlington Telecom, particularly from one elected official who is also a lawyer, Councilor Mason.
As the only attorney on the Burlington City Council, Mason regularly draws on his legal experience. During discussions over issues like new contracts or constitutional litigation, he knows the right questions to ask, guiding other councilors through the process.
The city, nor councilors, should be relying on free private lawyers to do legal work for the city, including councilors or commissioners who are also lawyers. That’s what paid professionals are for.
6. Civilian commissions need to be treated like civilian commissions.
Another big problem with many of the boards and commissions, particularly those with the most financial influence and power, are the strict limitations of who can be on those commissions. It makes sense that 1 person on the Church Street Marketplace Commission is a Church Street business owner, but if most members have to be business owners, that’s not a civilian commission; it’s a government-sanctioned business lobbying group. If every board is a civilian board, then nearly ANY civilian should be able to be on the board. And if citizens don’t have the necessary skills or education, then it’s the city’s job to bring commissioners up to speed, not pick from a handful of already knowledgeable residents.
The most egregious boards and commissions:
Design Advisory Board:
Members of this board must meet the following criteria:
“Should be residents of Burlington,” but at least a majority of the Board must be Burlington residents, 24 VSA 4433;
A majority of the members shall be professionals from any of the following fields: architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, planning, contracting, archaeology, or real estate development;
To the extent possible, at least two (2) of the members shall be professionals from the disciplines of history, architectural history, architecture or historical architecture.
Church Street Marketplace:
Members of this board must meet the following criteria:
All nine must be legal voters of the State of Vermont
Not less than five must be legal voters of the City of Burlington;
No more than four of the commissioners shall be from the same political party;
Two members must be proprietors or managers of retail businesses that are within the Church Street Marketplace District, but do not need to be residents of Burlington;
Two members must be proprietors or managers of retail businesses that are within the downtown improvement district, one of them being located within the downtown improvement district but outside the boundaries of the Church Street Marketplace, but do not need to be residents of Burlington
The Conservation Board:
Members of this board must meet the following criteria:
Be a resident of the City of Burlington;
Have a demonstrated commitment to environmental conservation;
Individuals with training and experience in the following areas will be represented if at all possible: environmental law, environmental science, civil engineering, and natural resource planning.
7. Even without limitations, powerful boards and commissions can still easily become heterogeneous, stacked with wealthier and more powerful residents, without clear guidance.
Development Review Board:
Members of this board must meet the following criteria:
Be a resident of the City of Burlington.
For some reason, even though this is the only requirement, the 2016 board consisted of: 4 Lawyer, 3 Architects, 2 Real Estate professionals, 1 Government worker.
Members of this board must meet the following criteria:
Be a resident of the City of Burlington;
No more than two-thirds of the members of this board shall be from the same political party.
The 2016 commission was made up of: 2 Lawyers, 1 Environmentalist, 1 UVM employee, 1 VEIC employee, 1 Real Estate professional, 1 Banking professional.
Burlington’s livable wage ordinance, a 17-year old lofty goal, has not lived up to its intentions or expectations. Started in 2001 to give city workers and contractors hired by the city a livable wage, the ordinance was most recently updated in 2014 when the city identified lax enforcement of the ordinance, while also slightly widening the number of employees affected by the ordinance, two steps in the right direction. Unfortunately oversight wouldn’t begin for atleast another 3 years, a gap that belies a recent article about Burlington cracking down on ordinance violators. The livable wage ordinance not only needs improvement so that Skinny Pancake (8+ locations!) and other service workers at the airport are paid a decent wage, but also needs to be updated to reflect skyrocketing housing costs, childcare costs, medical costs, and rising student debt among other rising costs of living.
Consider this: in 2009, when the city first included different wages for those with and without health benefits, the livable wage was $13.94/h ($29,000 a year) and $15.83/h ($33,000 a year) respectively. How does the city decide this number? It seems that the city uses the state calculations of a livable wage for two adults sharing a 2 bedroom apartment with no children, which results in lower hourly wages.
The current livable wage, 9 years later in 2018, is $14.24/h ($29,619 a year) with employer assisted health insurance, and $15.83/h ($32,926) without, a difference of only $3,300 a year. So the livable wage has gone up by a paltry thirty cents an hour over the course of 9 years, a yearly increase of 3/10 of 1%, while the livable wage without benefits has remained flat. On top of this, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if those 2009 wages were tied to inflation they would $16.48/h and 18.71/h respectively in today’s dollars. (A high in 2007 dollars of $13.94 would equate to $17.19/h today for jobs without health benefits.) When we also consider that the cheapest plan on the health exchange in 2018 from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont costs $5,800 a year (with a prohibitively high deductible), even the difference in livable wages does not reflect the reality of current healthcare costs.
The good news is that on July 1st, 2018 the livable wage ordinance will move significantly upwards for the first time in nearly a decade, to $14.52/h ($30,200 a year) and $16.20/h ($33,700), with and without health benefits respectively, or a $1200 and $700 increase over 10 years. Unfortunately, even the higher of these two numbers does not reflect true cost of living in Burlington. A Redstone or Bissonnette 2 bedroom apartment costs around $1700 a month, and with utilities about about $11,000 a year per person (1 person per bedroom). For those rent prices to be considered affordable (spending no more than 30% of one’s pretaxed income on housing), livable wages would need to be a minimum of $17.80 an hour WITH benefits, and that’s not considering the livable wage for single parents, 2-parent households with multiple children, etc.
I know from personal experience that the current livable wage ends up being a sustenance wage for full-time workers. This year I was making about $16.20/h, the city’s livable wage without health benefits, and I had fairly generous health, sick, and vacation benefits. I don’t own a car, I split rent (over-crowd) with two other full-time working professionals in a 2-bedroom apartment close to downtown. Yet I still struggle to pay all my bills ( $300 a month in student loans – thanks UVM!), to go to the doctor or take care of my mental health in a timely fashion because I’m worried about how much I will have to spend out of pocket (thanks high deductibles). I try to save a few thousand dollars in case of an emergency, but as I near 30 years old I haven’t put away money for retirement in 6 years and would need to rely on loved ones if a single major accident occurred. It really stretches the meaning of the world ‘livable’.
It’s time for our livable wage ordinance to not only remove all exemptions, but for the wage to be updated to reflect the true cost of living in Burlington. The wage should reflect the intent of the ordinance, otherwise it will continue to fall far short of meet the needs of city workers:
(a) Income from full-time work should be sufficient to meet an individual’s basic needs;
(b) The City of Burlington is committed to ensuring that its employees have an opportunity for a decent quality of life and are compensated, and such that they are not dependent on public assistance, to meet their basic needs.
Is it a livable wage if you’re constantly stressed about money, don’t have a retirement, live in over-crowded apartments, and rely on multiple public and private organizations for financial assistance?
Burlington tenant laws are already strong so why would we need more?
The truth is that Burlington tenant laws may be stronger than many cities, but fall far short of helping marginalized residents (see: Fair Housing Report, VT Legal Aid Report), especially when little money is allocated towards enforcement. There are numerous ways to evict tenants, including not renewing their lease, jacking the rent up at the end of a lease, or upgrading all the units and charging a lot more thereby displacing low income residents like Bissonette. On top of this, while it is illegal to discriminate due to housing, it’s nearly impossible to prove, and because Burlington is an ‘at will’ renting community, landlords can evict you for any little reason as long as it’s not obviously discriminatory. The truth is that the current policies and laws are not helping in their intended way.
Can’t we build our way out of this problem? Isn’t it an issue of supply and demand?
Which problem? The problem of housing costing too much? Building more market housing will only lower costs on the high end of the market, since most new market-rate housing is too expensive for most renters. If you’re a renter in Burlington, odds are your rent is so unaffordable that even with the top of the market dropping, it won’t affect your own rent. Higher wages would be one way to mitigate this, but rent protections and limits would be best to keep landlords from gouging. On top of this, as long as we have two huge colleges with over 5,000 renters and they charge $1800 a month for 2 students to share a bedroom, even supply and demand won’t effect the market in a typical way.
Doesn’t inclusionary zoning help our housing crunch?
Not really. Inclusionary zoning (IZ), the idea that a certain percentage (15%-20% in Burlington) of new housing should be affordable so that a few lucky families can economically integrate, is a nicer version of trickle-down housing, particularly since our city and state are not putting serious money behind new affordable housing construction. Also, inclusionary zoning rental prices are based on area median income, which is likely 50% higher than Burlington’s renter median income – so even if you are making a ‘livable wage’, you likely cannot afford even inclusionary zoning rental prices.
For-profit developers, particularly Erik Hoekstra of Redstone, would like you to believe that IZ slows overall development in the city, because inclusionary zoning does hurt their bottom line. The truth is that numerous studies have shown that inclusionary zoning marginally affects single family home prices (by 1%), while there are minimal drawbacks to inclusionary zoning. Bigger issues for developers include the inflationary increase in land value and cost, and zoning in the city, which bans dense development throughout the south end, the new north end, and parts of the hill section. Finding a way to limit this land inflation would help developers, renters, and folks who would like to buy in Burlington but cannot afford to.
If we build more new housing, low income people can move into the older housing, right?
In theory, if the older housing is affordable, then yes. In practice, since so many people in the Burlington area make below livable wages, there will always be competition for older housing between low income residents and recent college graduates. Also, if we take that logic elsewhere, it ends up being very problematic. If we build new schools or hospitals, if we grow better food, etc, then low income people can take the cheaper and lower-quality versions, right? Everyone deserves good housing, and just because you work in a job that underpays doesn’t mean you should have to fight over wealthier folks’ crumbs.
Won’t new market-rate buildings in neighborhoods help relieve housing pressure in those neighborhoods?
As usual, in theory, yes, it should help. In practice, when new housing goes into a new neighborhood without rent limits or protections, the rental prices of surrounding properties creep upwards. Not to mention that as new, pricier housing is built, prices everywhere creep up, while new, fancier restaurants and corner stores open, pricing out the low-income families that are able to stick it out. No one wants to live in a community where all the businesses are geared towards a different class than them.
I’m a YIMBY, Yes In My Back Yard, unlike you, who is a NIMBY, No In My Back Yard.
Let me ask you a question – would you be okay with a 5 story building, with 100 new people, moving in right next door, and all the construction and noise that will come with it? Are you willing to go to your elected officials and city hall and demand zoning changes that allow for dense, market rate housing to be built everywhere in the city, even in your literal backyard? If so, great, you are one of the few YIMBYs! I hope you will also fight for greater public investment in low-income housing.
We have already built low income housing, so why do we need more?
It’s true that Burlington has more affordable housing than any other community. Yet there is such a strong need for housing for those who make so little money, and the current plan to ensure 20% of the next 3,500 units of housing to be affordable falls far short of what is needed. Imagine a pyramid of need, and then flip the pyramid and make that second pyramid one of development. We need to align new development with those who need it.
The 2015 housing needs assessment doesn’t parse out housing data, and therefore makes it an incredibly difficult document to use as a road map. While it talks in broad strokes about housing in the community, we have no idea what % of low income residents pay more than 50% of their income to rent, from this document we do not know who needs housing the most (severely low income residents). We all believe we need more housing. But if we don’t know who needs what type of housing, which income groups and household types we should be targeting, then most of the new 1 and 2 bedroom housing will not meet the needs of the community. It’s like being asked to build a bike, deciding to build a mountain bike, then finding out that your client wanted a road bike with attachments for multiple children. And you never asked.
We have a low income Housing Trust Fund which the mayor and council doubled – that’s a really good start, right?
After 6 years in office, this administration and council have committed $160,000 more a year to affordable housing, for a total of $310,000. That will buy 1-2 units of housing a year, total. When one considers how many resources are devoted to solving parking downtown, or the mall redevelopment, it’s hard to feel like elected officials are interested in investing public funds for low income housing.
Don’t we already have housing vouchers? Isn’t that enough public support?
With federal dollars, we do have housing vouchers through BHA. Unfortunately these vouchers, which give residents ‘choice’, have failed in their original mission. Not only is the wait for a voucher around 10 years long, but often these vouchers don’t come close to covering 70% of market rate rent. On top of this, while proponents claim that vouchers give families more living flexibility, the truth is that so few apartments are affordable that their options are severely limited. Vouchers are an unsustainable way to give federal money to a handful of landlords, often slumlords, who at any time can (and do!) upgrade their units and kick out their low-income tenants who can no longer afford higher rents. A better use of funds would be to support permanent, affordable housing.
A recent article from Seven Days about Champlain College’s new dorms had a lot of quotes from a lot of people. I want to show how, as long as UVM and Champlain can charge whatever they want, our housing market will never resemble a ‘traditional’ supply and demand market. How, as long as properties are valued as investment properties, only the very wealthy will have any chance at affording to live in Burlington. New dorms may ease the housing crunch for a select few, but for the rest of us, we will continue to pay most of our low wages to wealthy landlords as we struggle to thrive.
“This year, Sharp got no takers from ads on Craigslist. He dropped the rent from $2,800 to $2,700 a month, but still has not found tenants. “We may have to go to $2,600.”
The building, located at 24-28 Orchard Terrace, consists of four 3-bedroom units. As a 20-year home-owner, the mortgage is minimal if existent. Each bedroom rents for an astronomical $933 a month, grossing over $11,000 a month and $134,000 a year, and will be reduced to *only* $866, $10,400, and $125,000 respectively. Even after factoring in maintenance and property taxes (at $20,000 a year), that’s still more than $50,000 a year IN PROFIT just for owning a single building. That’s money that doesn’t go into the local Burlington economy.
No service worker, nonprofit worker, mental health worker, or early educator in Burlington could afford these rents, even at the reduced price.
“Leases run for 11.5 months and aren’t cheap. They vary in cost from about $965 to $1,355 a month, including utilities and internet.”
The biggest housing issue isn’t supply and demand, but that UVM and Champlain college, two of the largest landlords in the city, have a huge captive market. They can charge whatever they damned please within ‘reason’, which grossly inflates the private market.
“”If Champlain were ever to hold a yard sale, this could be its most valuable asset,” said John Caulo, an associate vice president at Champlain, as he gave Seven Days a tour.”
Good thing that this property doesn’t have to abide, for some reason, by inclusionary zoning laws like all the other for-profit developers in the city, or else it would lose some of its $36 million value, but atleast the city cleared $1.1 million for the prime downtown public property, (excluding half the cost of soil removal and treatment). The city has worked out an agreement for payments in lieu of property taxes for the next 20 years. After that, it’s the next generation’s problem and tax burden.
“Champlain has terminated its lease of roughly 280 beds at Spinner Place apartments, effective this summer. That change has left the owners of that building on Winooski Falls Way hustling to find new tenants for the coming school year.”
So the vast majority of students were already housed in student-specific housing. Building 312 beds leaves a net total of 32 new beds. That sounds like great news for Winooski’s housing market, as 280 new beds open up. I’m not seeing how that really helps Burlington’s student housing crunch…
“On a recent morning, the street was packed with parked cars bearing out-of-state license plates, and litter blew around the curbs and sidewalks. The discounts people are seeing on Craigslist haven’t filtered down to Bausch. Rentals remain “pricey,” she said.”
I bet, most of those discounts are towards the new ‘market-rate’ housing built by Redstone, Farrell, SD Ireland etc, where they charge upwards of $2000 per month for 1 bedroom and $2400 a month for 2 bedrooms. What did our mayor say? “That sounds to me like the early stages of a market reconciling, kind of recalibrating to deal with the fact that there’s substantial amounts of new supply.” A market for the elite few, sure.
“One big question is whether the changing marketplace will lead owner-occupants to reclaim some of the houses that were converted to student rentals decades ago.”
Very few current residents in Burlington could afford to buy a dilapidated $400,000 single family home and then spend another $200,000 to bring it back to life. This idea exists outside reality. If you look on local real estate sites, most houses near UVM are sold as investment properties, inflating the sale price immensely.
Out with the old and in with the new. It seems that the door for folks who work for Mayor Weinberger will revolve a couple more times in the next few weeks. Recently hired CEDO Director Noelle MacKay will be leaving her position after just two years, and the mayor’s chief of staff Brian Lowe will be leaving after three.
It seems that those hired by Mayor Weinberger don’t tend to stay, and it’s a very troubling sign as we enter years 6-9 of his mayorship. Sometimes folks leave because they don’t mesh well with a community that has historically valued robust democracy and public discussion. It may have to do with the supposedly stifling and controlling environment in City Hall, where rumor has it that one former city department head quit due to our mayor’s numerous tantrums. What is clear, however, is that it’s hard to hire, or keep female department heads in this city, and this is a troubling recurrence.
“Weinberger deserves credit for recognizing the importance of the gender issue, saying, “We know we do better work if we have a good gender balance.” Yet since taking office in 2012, only three of Weinberger’s 11 department appointees have been women. A city leadership dominated by white men projects a distinct message, one that resonates loudly among people who do not see themselves among those who hold the power.”
Department Heads Hired by Mayor Weinberger Who Have Quit
Bob Rusten, Chief Administrative Officer, 5 years.
Current Department Heads Hire By Mayor Weinberger and Still In Office
Eileen Blackwood, Burlington City Attorney, 6 years. (Worth noting that Mayor Weinberger’s first pick was Ivy-League-educated friend Ian Carleton, who claimed he should be paid more because of his elite Ivy league education.)
Gene Richards, Airport Director, 5 years.
Chapin Spencer, DPW Director, 5 years.
Neil Lunderville, Burlington Electric, 4 years.,
Brandon Del Pozo, Police Chief, 3 years.
Yaw Obeng, Superintendent BSD, 3 years.
Steven Locke, Fire Chief, 3 years. (Came from Mayor Weinberger’s hometown of Hartford.)
Beth Anderson, Former Chief Innovation Officer, 3 Years. (Soon to be Chief Administrative Officer.)
Mary Danko, Library Director, 1 year.
Cindi Wight, Parks and Rec Director, under 1 year.
Brian Lowe, soon to be Chief Innovation Officer.
On top of this, folks who work closest with Mayor Weinberger get rewarded handsomely after they’ve worked for 3 years under his tutelage.
His first chief of staff, Mike Kanarick, lasted 3 years and makes $132,000 a year at Burlington Electric, where he makes $10,000 a year less than the director.
Brian Lowe, his second chief of staff, also lasted 3 years and if his new job pays as much as when Anderson leaves, he will be making over $112,000 a year, a significant pay raise from his current $75,000 a year.
While it’s unfair to say that what Mayor Weinberger is doing is different than his predecessors, it’s worth questioning what sort of abuses are likely to occur when any Burlington mayor can hand out six-figure city jobs for their closest friends and advisers, and it leads the public to question whether these political patronage hires are the best employees for the job. You’d have to ask your local Burlington Electric employee how things have been working out – rumor has it that folks in BED have to work around Mr. Kanarick. An independent hiring committee and an independent ethics board, could help bring honesty and transparency to this issue.
The example I would like to look at today, to highlight how land-use planning can benefit the entire city or a select few, is the Burlington Country Club.
Burlington is a small city with little undeveloped land to build on. As a city we only have about 10 square miles, or 6457 acres, of land to build on. This number drops to 5,601 acres when we exclude right-of-ways. When we then factor in all the protected land, we are left with less than half that amount, or 3.9 square miles (2500 acres) to build on. That’s not a lot of space.
The 220 acre country club constitutes nearly 9% of all buildable land in the city, while over 40% of all land in Burlington, buildable or otherwise, is tax-exempt. That puts significant pressure on the limited private, for-profit land in Burlington that is built up, and when land is under-utilized it puts an even greater strain on that limited land.
There are arguments for and against a country club in the largest city in Vermont, especially when one considers there are 4 other country clubs within 15 miles of downtown Burlington. I would just point out that the country club pays property taxes of $140,000 a year. If the land were utilized in a similar manner to the rest of the city, where $98,000,000 in property taxes are collected every year, the city could raise an extra $9,500,000 per year in property taxes. It could definitely help relieve some of the property tax pressure that the majority of small homeowners face.
Proper land-use planning, done in a way that is fair and consistent, can benefit everyone. To do this, we should consider a few steps:
Raise property taxes on for-profit private properties with low levels of development and a high percentage of open space. Possibly consider raising taxes on land based not just on it’s current value but on it’s under-utilized value. Gas stations and single-level properties in the downtown are could be assessed in a way to encourage more dense redevelopment.
Create better incentives for landowners to redevelop, and make sure these incentives are consistent.
Change the zoning laws to encourage fairer, more dense development throughout the city.
Stop giving out one-time zoning changes for large, single developers, especially since these properties tend to be monolithic and less attractive as neighborhoods.
One thing that bothered me during the debate around the mall redevelopment, particularly changing the zoning downtown, was the argument that all density is automatically good for all of Burlington’s residents. For the most part, the folks arguing passionately for more density, those who self-described as YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard) seemed to be okay with density as long as it wasn’t right next to them, in essence contradicting their own argument.
Dense living has it’s benefits and its drawbacks, there’s no question about it. And if we want to push for policies that encourage density, we need to be honest about the good and bad, and ensure that both good and bad are spread fairly throughout the city. Unfortunately, based on current zoning, this is not the case. Areas of the city with high rates of home ownership, along with higher rates of household income, are the least dense parts of the city.
It’s tough to see that even members of the Inclusionary Zoning Working Group seem to be okay with these different zoning schemes (including David White, Brian Pine, and Nancy Owens), even though the data below suggests that different zoning could alleviate some of our housing crisis. To his credit, John Davis advocated for more regular zoning throughout the city, arguing that these policies hurt development and inclusionary zoning.
John Davis is on to a really important point. Since 1990, of the 57 projects that included inclusionary zoning units, 44 occurred downtown or in the old north end. So while 77% of all projects with mixed-income housing occurred in the densest part of the city, only 23% occurred in the sections of the city with the highest levels of home-ownership, with a measly 5% in the south end.
Looking at a random example, I believe that land costs are not drastically different between the south end, new north end, and old north end, and in fact costs are so low in some parts of the new north end that new, more dense development could occur there for quite some time in to the future. Take a comparison of three random properties.
Old North End: 209 North Winooski Ave, land is assessed at $112,700 on a 8,168 square foot lot, or $13.79 per square foot.
South End: 273 South Prospect Street, land is assessed at $213,400 on a 14,800 square foot lot, or $14.42 per square foot
New North End: 42 Venus Ave, land is assessed at $70,800 on a 8,890 square foot lot, or $7.96 per square foot.
If we are going to be a dense city, a livable and walkable city, we should expect that every part of the city should be zoned for dense living. By changing our zoning we can set an example for surrounding communities, that we expect all residents to share in the benefits and drawbacks of city living, regardless of whether they are renters or homeowners, business owners or business workers. Until then, we will continue to be a city divided, a city where some folks, those who tend to have more money or have lived in the city for decades, have a drastically different experience than newer, or poorer, residents.
It’s hard to look at Tuesday’s results and feel excited for the Progressive Party, a party with a very tarnished brand, a party that purports to help working and low-income residents, but is unable to actually attract said folks to their ranks. While Mayor Weinberger lost 15% in the polls from 2015, Progressives were unable to gain a single council seat, couldn’t field a mayoral candidate, and Brian Pine, a heavy favorite and moderate Progressive-ish candidate, was elected to a left-leaning bastion, where radical Genese Grill came close to beating Councilor Knodell only a year ago.
A large part of third party’s appeal is their unwavering commitment to their principles and strategy. Love or hate them, but at least you know their positions and strategies. Third parties’ influence comes from a small tent – a weakness and an asset – which limits membership but saves energy from engaging in lengthy battles requiring extensive internal compromise towards the ‘middle’. While third parties may have trouble winning statewide office, they can still affect change by being a party that works together and pulls from the left, without having to constantly compromise in ways that left Democrats must.
Atleast that’s how it should work. In practice, the Progressive Party over the last few years, particularly Burlington Progressives, have been entirely unable to agree on anything, and because of this no one knows what they stand for. Who wants to vote for a party that, when push comes to shove, say they support working class folks, but were perfectly okay selling city property to a known slumlord, and those who did object did so from the perspective of not privatizing city property, as opposed to protecting our most vulnerable residents from landlord abuse?
From entirely abandoning beleaguered Mayor Kiss, to disagreements about the mall redevelopment, F-35s, and civilian oversight of our police commission, Progressives are unable to vote together, are unable to put together a competing vision for this city that doesn’t involve isolated opposition, and are therefore an entirely ineffective opposition party. While I am sure that many folks feel that being an opposition party is a bad thing, that’s how a two party system works. If you aren’t in power and you want to regain power, you need to offer a clear competing vision. Otherwise, why would anyone vote for change if most of the time the ‘opposition’ is in agreement with the ‘establishment’?
On top of this, Progressive candidates running in Democratic primaries, along with many longtime Democrats like Tim Ashe and Phillip Baruth receiving the Progressive endorsement (D/P or P/D), not only confuse people on what it means to be Progressive, but also make it incredibly hard to hold any party leaders or elected officials accountable to the party platform. On top of this, the Burlington city party has put very limited resources behind new Progressive candidates, but will mobilize for more established and ‘establishment’ candidates (some of whom won’t even take the Progressive label) like Driscoll, Knodell, Pine, the latter two of whom were also supported by mega-landlord Bissonnette. I have trouble understanding how helping marginalized folks includes working with folks who mass-evict low-income residents.
Outside forces have also hurt the party. Bernie running for President as a Democrat, and Our Revolution primarily supporting progressive Democratic candidates, has quickened the party’s demise. The results from the Ward 8 election, where Socialist Culculsure and independent-left Driscoll won many more votes combined than the Democratic incumbent, but Progressive student candidate Neubieser lost handily to the incumbent ‘independent’ Democrat Roof, show that the party is in dire straights and even students would rather support nominally-independent candidates over Progressive challengers.
I know too many people on the left who have become entirely uninterested in the Progressive Party. If the Progressive Party wants to have a chance of survival they need to shed the older Progressives or those associated with older Progressives (Brian Pine, Councilor Knodell, Council Sharon, and anyone associated with Michael Monte and former Mayor Clavelle aka ‘the Clavelle Wing’, who openly supported Mayor Weinberger last election), many of whom refuse to share meaningful leadership and power with younger members, and they need to start putting priority in supporting newer, younger, and often times further-to-the-left candidates. Otherwise, they should be prepared to be in charge of a party that stands for little and accomplishes even less.
But what do I know, I was just chair of the city party for two incredibly frustrating years, and an unsupported city council candidate.
When I ran for city council last year and was looking into our local housing market, I was blown away by how Burlington’s housing market doesn’t function like a typical supply/demand market. There are many reasons why this is the case, (I’ll save it for a different post) but the biggest reason that housing in Burlington is so dysfunctional is that UVM and Champlain College run a closed-housing market conglomerate, free of property taxes that most landlords have to face, and they get to rent to a captive audience, who must pay whatever UVM asks them to pay (within ‘reason’).
UVM owns or leases 5700 beds (it is unclear how many bedrooms that is, if it includes privately-owned Redstone housing, but even if we assume the university averages 2 students per bedroom, that’s still 2,850 bedrooms), while Champlain College owns around 1800-1900 beds. To compare, Champlain Housing Trust, the next largest landlord, owns only about half that number, at nearly 1300 bedrooms, while Bissonnette, the largest private landlord by number of beds (until Farrell’s Burlington College mega-project is built), owns nearly 550 beds.
If you attend UVM or Champlain, you are required (with exceptions) to live on campus and are required to pay on-campus housing costs. When one considers the cost of living on campus, and how students are really only in the dorms for 7 months out of the year, it’s clear that on-campus housing is highway robbery, and anything off campus is a comparative steal.
Obscenely inflated housing costs affect more than just on-campus students – it affects the rest of the housing market for other renters as well. As students move off campus, or atleast out of student dorms, they no longer have to pay anywhere from $750 a month to share a quad with 3 other adults, $1,000 to share a double, and up to $1400 a month for a single room with a private bath and shared common area facilities. Even campus-sponsored private-housing is expensive – Redstone Lofts are $950 per month per bedroom, Redstone Apartments are a bit cheaper starting at $700 per month per bedroom, while Eagles Landing will run from $925 per month per bedroom up to $1300 per month for a studio.