If we want to solve our housing crisis, we have to know the city’s housing profile – what type of housing is needed and at what cost. Otherwise, we will end up using scarce city resources on solving problems that aren’t really problems, like building a thousand market-rate units of housing. Burlington’s current administration’s focus on market-rate housing shows how focusing on the wrong demographic can do little, if any, good to help most vulnerable residents.
Vermont Legal Aid recently came out with a really good report titled The Cost of Substandard Housing:
Data from the 2014 Vermont Housing Profile by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency bears this out: over 80% of people with income under $20,000 per year are in unaffordable housing, whereas a comparative 50% of people with income from $20,000 to $50,000 are in that situation, and fewer than 20% of people with income over $50,000 are in unaffordable housing. The pressures of trying to rent unaffordable housing on a low income mean that tenants often experience the brunt of the landlord tenant power imbalance that Griffin describes.
So while the vast majority of folks making over $50,000 can find affordable housing (defined as paying 30% of income), folks making less have serious trouble. And that’s a problem because so few housing policies are targeted at those who need it the most. 2017 HUD income limits show that 100% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for an individual is $58,000 a year and for a family of 4 it’s $83,000.
How Does Government Support Affordable Housing?
There are a couple ways that our government tries to support those on the lower end of the income ladder. Section-8 housing vouchers are based on a family paying 30% of their income up to a certain amount, regardless of how little or how much they earn. To get a voucher, one must expect to wait at least 10 years and then try to get one of the very few apartments that are still affordable for those with vouchers. The second way, Burlington’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, is based off of AMI, so that 15%-20% of new housing in Burlington is limited to those making around 65% of AMI – $38,000 for an individual and $54,000 for a family of 4. While AMI may seem like a useful target for building housing, the truth is that AMI is actually a fairly useless statistic. How so?
City and Suburbs
Area Median Income looks at the income of everyone in the Burlington-metro area. That means folks in Burlington, many of whom are in the service and non-profit industries, are lumped up in with the doctors and other high-income residents of Colchester, Shelburne, Charlotte, Williston, etc. This means that while AMI may be an appropriate number for those living in the entire area, it is too high of a number when used for Burlington, due to wealth disparities between city and suburbs, and rent disparities between homeowners and renters.
According to national data, the median income in cities is about 92% of the median income in surrounding, wealthier, towns. So if we take these numbers at face value, Burlington’s Median Income (BMI) is likely closer to $54,000 for an individual and $77,000 for a family of 4.
Renters and Homeowners
But Area Median Income includes homeowners, and we are really just looking today on how we can help low-income renters – so we want to know Burlington’s Median RENTER Income (BMRI) – and that number is drastically different than AMI or BMI. According to the aforementioned study, in 2010 median homeowner household income in Vermont was $65,000, while median renter household income was $31,000, or 48%.
So! That means, when apartments are built in the city, if we want them to meet our city’s median renters, we need units that are affordable for individuals making $26,000 and families of 4 making $37,000. Which means we need housing built for those making 44% of AMI, and that is just to help the median renter! In this light, what exactly has Burlington done to help Burlington’s median renters?