Is Burlington Using Land Effectively and Efficiently?

 

Land-use planning has a lot to do with how Burlington is shaped, and the way our city is currently planned certainly seems to favor some over others. For instance, the way our zoning works gives priority to single-family homeowners in the new north end and south end. The way our zoning changes work give priority to the largest and wealthiest developers, for instance the spot-zoning done for Don Sinex downtown and the spot-zoning done for Eric Farrell on the old Burlington College Land. Zoning, and land use-planning, should be fair, consistent, and benefit the maximum number of residents, current and future.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Create better incentives for landowners to redevelop, and make sure these incentives are consistent.
  3. Change the zoning laws to encourage fairer, more dense development throughout the city.
  4. Stop giving out one-time zoning changes for large, single developers, especially since these properties tend to be monolithic and less attractive as neighborhoods.

Does Burlington’s Zoning Hurt Housing Development?

Our Zoning

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.

Inclusionary Zoning and Housing Segregation

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.

Economic and Racial Segregation

A Fair Housing Report concluded that this sort of zoning could make economic and racial segregation in our city worse, with segregation increasing 50% since 1990. Data from the 2010 Census reinforces this point.

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.

Is the Progressive Party Becoming Irrelevant?

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.

Is Burlington a welcoming place for everyone?

I ask this not as a thought exercise, or as a way to shame the many hard working folks who do the daily work of social and economic justice in our city, folks who regularly self-reflect on their own privilege and power, but rather as a serious question. Is Burlington welcoming to you? Is it welcoming to those who don’t look or act like you?

I would say, based on interviews with tenants who rented from slumlord Rick Bove, based on the many votes made by our city council and mayor the past 6 years, that Burlington is not a welcoming place for those on the political and economic margins, that Burlington is not a welcoming place to those who neither look nor act like me. It’s not welcoming to people of color, to anyone who is low-income, who is differently-bodied, who is gender nonconforming, and so so many other folks whose voices are regularly ignored or silenced in our city. I wrote this for the folks who do feel welcomed in Burlington.

Burlington is a city that will tell you they believe in economic justice, like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, lessening the gender and racial pay gap for those who need it most, but then won’t do a single thing to actually raise the economic wellbeing of low-wage workers. Burlington is a city that will say they believe in racial justice, that Black Lives Matter, and yet will support a city council, mayor, and police chief who don’t believe we need civilian oversight of our police officers. Burlington will rally 1,000 strong when Donald Trump comes trolling to town, but when our own police officers kill a man in the New North End in cold blood, when witnesses directly contradict the officers’ testimonies, no one makes a peep. Burlington is a city that will brag about how they help everyone find safe and affordable housing, but will then turn a blind eye to gross housing injustices, a blind eye to slumlords who’s daily crimes cause great suffering to people of color and low income families, women, and the intersectionality of all these folks and others.

People often call me either an idealist or a pessimist, but I am neither. I am a realist who sees the daily injustices in our community and hopes for a more just future, while also recognizing that our city is all too comfortable with the status quo. I see how our elected officials, well-meaning and very privileged, have no clue what it’s like to feel marginalized and powerless in our own community, how they have little trouble saying that Burlington is a great place for everyone to live because they themselves, along with their friends and relatives, do not struggle to regularly feel safe in Burlington, do not struggle to feel economically secure, do not struggle to feel heard.

Burlington, however, is both idealistic and pessimistic. It is full of idealists who on the one hand believe naively, that, if they speak truths out-loud, about their power and privilege, that they are not only absolved of their own complicitness in a grossly inequitable, unjust system, but that their words are just as meaningful and impactful as action. Burlington, on the other hand, is full of pessimists who are so distrustful of their own less fortunate neighbors that they refuse to share meaningful power with them. Instead, they convince themselves that any progress, no matter how small or comforting in its incrementalism, since it does not challenge their own position and power in the community, is better than no progress. But progress within the status quo will not make people’s lives tangentially better, because the progress is for those in power, not for those who suffer.

I would say that it is a matter of time before this city scares off the next generation of folks who would continue Burlington’s tradition as a tolerant, progressive city, but that would be idealistic. In reality, many of those folks have already been scared away, and I have no doubt if we continue to vote to keep the status quo like we did last night, the rest will soon follow.

UVM and Champlain On-Campus Housing Prices are Hurting the Rental Market

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.

It’s even crazier when you consider that universities and student housing, including Eagles Landing (194 Saint Paul Street) don’t abide by inclusionary zoning requirements. One would hope that the inclusionary zoning working group would work on this issue – with one meeting left, they have not yet.

Why is Councilor Roof on the Vehicle for Hire Board?

One of the symptoms of atrophying boards and commissions is that it is sometimes very difficult to fill commission spots with new faces. Whenever I talk to less political friends, they have no idea what commissions do or how to apply to be on one, and the Vehicle for Hire Board is a symptom of the same general groups of people applying for commissions and boards, especially when no one else knows about it. A couple things stand out.

  • Councilor Roof, who is an elected city official, is on the board. I don’t know if this has happened many times in the past, but it’s certainly a rare instance that blurs the line between citizen boards and elected officials. Since the other councilors vote on most Board candidates, this certainly feels like it could easily open up a conflict of interest.
  • Two members of the Vehicle for Hire Board are also on the Airport Commission. Wouldn’t city councilors want to ensure power and influence isn’t concentrated, even in the hands of individual citizens? And does this create a conflict, if those commissioner put the needs of the airport over the needs of cab drivers?

 

Vehicle for Hire Board

Member Ward Term Email
Dennis Duffy 7/2018
Charles Herrick 7/2018
William Keogh Sr. 5 7/2019
Jeffrey Munger 1 7/2019
Adam Roof 8 7/2018

 

Airport Commission

Member Ward Term Email
William Keogh Sr. 5 7/2018
Jeffrey Munger 1 7/2020
Alan Newman 7 7/2018
Pat Nowak 7/2018
Jeffrey L. Schulman 5 7/2019

Our citizen boards falter and lose credibility when we don’t put enough resources to help publicize to folks outside of the political establishment. We need a group of councilors committed to funding outreach to help include marginalized folks in government, especially for Councilor Roof’s Ward 8, since there are so few commissioners from his ward.

Updated: Why Are Developers and Housing Insiders Deciding Our Inclusionary Zoning Policy?

Correction: Councilor Knodell has let me know she is not a housing consultant and did not vote on Cambrian Rise. I stand corrected and apologize for the error.

The Inclusionary Zoning Working Group* is the sort of group that makes you want to bang your head against a wall. Approved unanimously by city council, it’s the perfect example of how our local politicians and government currently operate separately from constituents. The group consists entirely of housing developers and insiders, who meet 8 meetings during the morning when everyone is working, in class, or dropping their kids off at school. This group is a great example of a very noninclusive process decided entirely by political insiders – another example of our city using local experts for free advice instead of hiring outside experts who don’t have conflicts of interest.

Should we be worried about the the gaping conflicts of interests among participants, some of which I describe below? Should we be worried that we as a city are gladly letting insiders shape policy that will directly benefit them the most?

Who is on the committee? Local housing experts, as the council required. A City Council Member, who will chair the IZWG, 1 Representative from the Planning Commission, 2 For-Profit Developers, 2 Not-for-Profit Developers, 2 Affordable Housing Advocates, 1 CEDO Director or designee, and 1 Planning & Zoning Director or designee.

  • City Councilor Jane Knodell, a housing developer consultant with Monte and Davis (also in the group), who voted to segregate low income residents on the Burlington College development,
  • Erik Hoekstra, Redstone developer (and small personal landlord), who wants to gut inclusionary zoning,
  • Eric Farrell, Farrell Real Estate, building mega-development Cambrian Rise,
  • Michael Monte, CHT Director, housing developer consultant with Councilor Knodell and John Davis, who worked a deal with Farrell over the Burlington College Land, a deal that included entirely segregating low income residents into their own ‘ghetto’ building, supported the mall redevelopment even when it included a poor door entrance, and has advocating continuing this practice across the city,
  • Nancy Owens, Housing Vermont Director,
  • Bruce Baker, Real Estate Lawyer, Planning Commissioner, who hopefully doesn’t nor has ever worked for Farrell, Redstone, CHT, or Housing Vermont,
  • Brian Pine, former affordable housing director of CEDO who worked under Michael Monte, longtime friend of several people at the table, small landlord, and supporter of the mall redevelopment even when plans included a poor door entrance,
  • John Davis, Housing developer consultant with Councilor Knodell and Monte,
  • City Representation, David White, Planning Director and Noelle MacKay, CEDO Director

Other attendees for the other 7 meetings include Erhard Mahnke, director of the Affordable Housing Coalition (and longtime friend of most folks in the room), and a visit by city councilor Karen Paul. Those are the only people so far, not working for the city, who have had any input on the inclusionary zoning working group.

This group is 100% political insiders – folks who worked together on the Burlington College project, folks who have worked together in affordable housing since the days of Bernie, folks who regularly work on public/private development together. All of them are developers or landlords or directly work with them. All of them are MUCH wealthier than the typical Burlington resident, particularly those who benefit from inclusionary zoning.

Who is not included in this discussion?

  • Renters
  • Anyone from Legal Aid
  • Any case workers from BHA or Howard Center
  • People who live in inclusionary zoning units
  • Anyone living in poverty
  • Anyone who has lived in unsafe or unaffordable housing in the past two decades
  • Anyone who has faced growing housing discrimination or segregation

This is a working group created by industry experts. We wouldn’t want a smoking law to be decided by tobacco sellers and cigarette makers. We wouldn’t want our climate action plan to be decided by oil companies. So why as a city are we allowing this to happen? Why would our city council vote for this?

Thursday, March 8th, at 8am is their final meeting, and I will be there to share my displeasure with the process and what the group has decided on thus far – I hope you can join me.

*(For those who may not know, inclusionary zoning was created so that neighborhoods and buildings would remain economically integrated – the purpose is not to significantly build more affordable housing, an issue of great contention among the developer-class in Burlington.)