Why is ‘Affordable Housing’ Often Not Affordable?

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?

Are Poor Families and Children Being Priced Out of Burlington?

The data below suggests that Burlington is becoming a city for the wealthy, as working class families are being priced out of Burlington and forced to move further and further away from jobs and social services. What does this mean for Burlington, for our schools, for our values of inclusion?

Burlington’s childhood poverty rate has been dropping from a post-recession high of 51%. While it may seem obvious to give credit to a rebounding economy and maybe even local policies, the truth seems to be a bit less rosy. Since 2004 the percentage of children receiving free and reduced lunches has fallen from 42% to 40%, but when compared to the high of 51%, the data looks promising. Yet when we look at data from surrounding districts, the data suggests that poverty is increasing in nearly every other school district but Burlington. A reason for this may very well be that families are being priced out of Burlington due to gentrification, legal mass-evictions, and anemic affordable housing growth under the current administration.

While Winooski’s poverty rates returned to 2003 levels after a tumultuous 15 years, four districts doubled their poverty rate, while two others increased 5%-6%. Milton doubled from 16% to 36%, Colchester doubled from 13% to 27%, Williston doubled from 8% to 16%, Essex doubled from 11% to 22%, while Georgia has increased from 16% to 21% and South Burlington 11% to 17%.

The truth seems to be that lower poverty rates are a reflection of low income families being priced out of Burlington, and less with Burlington making meaningful policy decisions to help low income residents. With stagnant wages, a city council and mayor that won’t raise the minimum wage or strengthen our livable wage ordinance, growing housing costs and a widening income inequality gap, it makes sense that working class families continue to struggle. More seem to be struggling outside Burlington. With Bissonette mass-evicting folks out of their 300+ units of housing, it’s no wonder that folks are moving further and further away from social services and jobs.

All data can be found here.

Bissonette and Legal Mass-Evictions

Over the course of a couple years, Bissonette has legally evicted nearly all of their tenants by upgrading their housing; the vast majority of said tenants were using Section-8 vouchers. This is not only entirely legal in an unregulated housing market like Burlington, but it is putting a huge, terrible housing crisis on Burlington’s low income residents as the city loses hundreds of units of affordable housing. While Mayor Weinberger regularly talks about the need to build market-rate housing to meet our city’s housing crisis, this crisis seems to exist outside of the Mayor’s reality. In fact it wasn’t until CEDO, the mayor, and city councilors wanted to sell city land to known slumlord Rick Bove that any elected officials recognized this severe loss of housing.

Just look at the numbers – in the past few years nearly 300 units of housing, most of which is located in the Old North End, over 540 bedrooms, are no longer affordable. The average price per bedroom in a Bissonette apartment, based off of their own numbers online, is $843 per bedroom. This is how gentrification raises the rents of previously affordable apartments, as $1700 for a 2 bedroom apartment is about the price for new Redstone apartments.

As far as I know, no elected officials have offered solutions on how to mitigate these legal mass evictions, or how to protect our city’s most vulnerable residents. These are the sort of issues that really define gentrification, and are the issues that our elected officials need to be actively fighting so that our must vulnerable neighbors are’t priced out the city entirely.

The Other Side of Gentrification – A Tale of Two Burlingtons

Last month Seven Days wrote an article about gentrification in Burlington’s Old North End, where expensive new housing was built, and new restaurants popped up. Yet there’s another side of gentrification that is rarely discussed – the loss of affordable services along with the upscaling of previously affordable housing – and I believe that this part of gentrification is what really ends up pushing low income folks out of Burlington.

A Lack of Affordable Retail and Household Goods

The Old North End and Downtown areas no longer have any places to buy affordable used furniture. Myers closed in 2015, Salvation Army closed in 2016, and now Resource will be downsizing. While they will be selling home goods out of their location across the street, it’s hard to believe they will be able to carry the same number of home goods compared to in their current location. What options do low-income families have left in Burlington, especially if they cannot afford a car, to buy affordable furniture and clothing?  Will folks just shop at the city’s only Rent-A-Center, which is located in the poorest part of town, a business with a history of predatory business practices?

A Lack of Affordable Restaurants and Closure of the One Bottle Redemption Center

That’s not all. The one affordable restaurant in the Old North End (and all of Burlington, really), QTee’s, was bought by Redstone and converted into pricey apartments, while a pricier restaurant, Butch and Babes, moved in to the Redstone apartment building across the street. The one bottle redemption center within walking distance of downtown? Bought by Redstone and is now being converted into a restaurant.

A Lack of Affordable Housing

The Bisonnettes recently converted all 306 units of housing they own, the vast majority located in the Old North End, totaling 546 bedrooms, from affordable housing (especially for those with section 8 vouchers) to housing for young professionals. While Bright Street Coop added several dozen affordable apartments, this loss is having a huge effect on low income families in the area. This lack of housing was an argument used by several city councilors to justify selling city property to known slumlords.

How are folks living Downtown and in the Old North End supposed to enjoy the many benefits Burlington has to offer if they are being priced out of their neighborhoods? And what is happening to all these folks being priced out of Burlington?

 

Updated: Burlington City Employee Union Opposes Mayor Weinberger

Post title updated to reflect that a large portion of city employees are not unionized, and to reflect that many union members are saying that membership never took a vote. What at first looked like a huge win for Carina seems to be blowing back pretty hard, especially when several other city unions had already endorsed Miro.

What does it mean when the Burlington city employees’ union, the folks who carry out this administration’s decisions, unanimously oppose the current mayor? It’s certainly not a vote of confidence, and seems to highlight some real friction in Burlington right now.

Are Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative? Part 3 of 3

Update: I included the average and median home value of commissioners (priced to current value) compared to citywide median and average.

(If you did not get the chance to read part 1, I mapped out last year’s commissioner data to show what areas of the city commissioners come from, and in part 2 I looked at a ton of data around commissions, including housing type, housing value, profession, and gender.)

Today, I’d like to look at our boards and commissions over a series of 10 years to see if there is a correlation between Progressive and Democratic Mayors and commission representation. Using data from the 2005-06, 2011-2012, and 2016-17 years, I was able to compare commissions from the end of Mayor Clavelle’s tenure, the end of Mayor Kiss’s tenure, and 6 years into Mayor Weinberger’s tenure. Interesting data points are below.

Commissioners are more often homeowners and their houses are on average significantly wealthier, 16%-24% higher, than the city average. (Home values shown are the assessed value of said housing, which is about 85% of the full value.)

Commissioners by ward seem to be all over the place, but a few trends emerge. Wards 2 and 8, Old North End and Downtown, are chronically under-represented, while Wards 5 and 6, the South End, seem to generally have more representation than what one would expect to see, 11% representation if all wards were represented equally.

It seems that while there was a small dip during the Kiss years in regards to more economically diverse commissions, commissions are slowly climbing back up to the lack of diversity from 2006. Trends still favor relatively wealthier citizens in business and housing fields, with a decent increase in representation by the medical community. Interestingly, commissioners who may make less money, such as government workers and those working in the community/social work/education fields, seem to have lost the most ground since 2012.

While gender disparity decreased slightly under the Kiss administration, it seems to have stabilized under the Miro administration, hovering around 2/3rds of all commissioners as male.

The number of low-income renting commissioners, after climbing in 2012, has been falling since. The number of home-owning commissioners has increased steadily since 2006, while coop homeowners are only occasionally on commissions, regardless of who is mayor.

Once again, we see a small dip in the number of males on the finance and development commissions in 2012, while that number returns to 2006 levels by 2017. This is a troubling trend, as 75% of finance and development commissioners are male, meaning many voices are not being included in the decisions that have the most economic impact on all of our lives.

Why do our commissions look the way they do? I believe that the commission process at every step encourages wealthier residents to apply and to be voted onto commissions, and that the system itself, while small impacts can be made, works in a way to marginalize many members of the community. New mayors and city councilors seem to make little difference in the make up of commissions. I’d like to discuss these theories more in a final post.

Who Funds Mayor Weinberger’s Campaigns?

Every election cycle, local news organizations mention that Mayor Weinberger has strong financial connections to the developer, landlord, and real estate communities. But how strong are those connections? By scouring old campaign finance records, along with current finance reports, I have discovered that more than half of Miro’s campaign contributions, $150,000, come from local businesses, developers, landlords, folks in the housing community, and lawyers.

I believe that this sort of money can end swaying policy and stacking our commissions in ways that consolidate power, with 40% of our commissioners coming from business owners, developers, landlords, real estate professionals, and lawyers. While I cannot talk for Miro, in my own city council campaign I felt the pull of wealthy donors. A wealthy friend of mine donated $800 to my small campaign, about 16% of my total contributions. I was incredibly grateful to this person, and when they had a suggestion about my campaign or policy, I was willing to listen, even if I didn’t always agree.

When Mayor Weinberger is surrounded by commissioners who are also key donors, are opportunities being missed for commissions to recruit members of the community who may not be able to make political contributions, who may have a very different Burlington experience than those with wealth and power?

Note: I can share my data upon request, but have decided it’s best to keep individual names private.

Are Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative? Part 2 of 3

Today I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the data that I first presented in part 1. To ensure that the sample sizes were large enough, and not just the aberration of small commissions, I chose to look only at the commissions with at least 4 members.  You may be surprised by what the data reveals, I know I was.

I want to offer a few caveats – I made assumptions about folks’ genders based on their first names. While it’s certainly not 100% accurate nor good practice, the city does not seem to collect any data on gender or race when it comes to commissioners, so I worked with what I got. I also did my best to ensure that no identifying data would be presented, even though all of this information is public in one place or another.

By Ward

  • Ward 2, 3, and the gerrymandered student Ward 8 have the lowest number of commissioners, while Ward 1, 4, and 5 have the highest.
  • Ward 2 and 3 are represented on less than 50% of all commissions, while Ward 8 has barely any representation. Wards 4 and 5 are represented on 3/4ths of all commissions.
  • There are more commissioners living outside Burlington than from half the city’s individual wards, Wards 2,3,7, and 8.Note: Ward 0 denotes commissioners who live outside Burlington.


By Gender:

  • Burlington’s gender demographics are 51% female to 49% male, yet 34% of commissioners are female and 66% are male.
  • While 65% of commissions have more males than females, only 35% of commissions have more females than males.
  • The commissions involving business, development, financials, and housing skew heavily towards males, with over 80%.
  • Housing Board of Review, Design Review Board, and Retirement Board have combined 19 males on the boards and 0 females.

When we look at the commissions involving finances and development, the disparities are even starker:


By Home Owners and Renters:

  • Although 60% of Burlington residents are renters, only 14% of commissioners are renters.
  • Nearly as many commissioners live outside the city than are renters in the city.
  • Burlington’s median assessed value of a single family home is $234,200. 75% of home-owning commissioners, or 65% of all commissioners, own homes valued about the city median.
  • Every commission had a higher average home value than the median.
  • While 100% of commissions have homeowner representation, only 40% have renter representation, and only 25% have very low income renter representation of any kind.
  • 30% of commissions have representation from outside Burlington.
  • While 100% of commissions have more than 3 home owners, only 5% of commissions have more than 3 renters.

 


By Profession:

  • Overwhelmingly, over 44% (Business/Real) of commissioners work in the fields of law, housing, development, business, and finance. These are jobs that tend to pay much more than a livable wage.
  • Nearly 10% (Community/Social) of commissioners work in education, social work, community mental health, politics, or community organizing.
  • 1 student (UVM) was on any commissions, and they were a graduate student. No undergraduate students, who number over 12,000, have any representation on any boards or commissions.
  • 11.4% (Government) of commissioners work for either the city or state.

Note: One person worked in UVM real estate, and others worked as real estate and/or business lawyers. They were counted in all applicable groups.