Burlington Affordable Housing and Tenant Laws FAQ

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.

Doesn’t inclusionary zoning hurt our housing situation?

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.

Can’t we just follow the city’s housing needs assessment?

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.

Seven Days Misses the Mark on Housing in Burlington

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.

Quote 1:

“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.

Quote 2:

“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.

Quote 3:

“”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.

Quote 4:

“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…

Quote 5:

“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.

Quote 6:

“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.

Mayor Weinberger’s Revolving Door and Political Patronage Machine

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.

Don’t take my word for – here’s a 2016 editorial from the Free Press.

“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

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.

I’m starting to understand why so many department heads are getting residency exemptions for personal hardship. Since so few of them stick around more than 4 years, why buy a house if they’re thinking of leaving soon after they’re hired?