My research shows that the Housing Board of Review ends in a favorable outcome for tenants 77% of the time, and I believe that if the Housing Board of Review tweaked a few of their requirements, put some money into education and outreach, the number of cases, and % that tenants win cases, would climb even higher.
Although information on the city’s website is fairly limited (someone may want to talk to our ‘transparency Mayor’ about that one), the data shows that when tenants bring deposit cases in front of landlords they are very likely to win a decent amount of their stolen money back from their landlord. One has to wonder how many landlords build into their budget that they will always keep their tenants’ security deposits.
Of the nearly 100 cases available online, tenants won 77 of them. 4 of those winning cases, or 5%, won double their requested amount for willfully withholding a deposit, and for 2 of those cases, tenants didn’t know that they could represent their roommates, so only 1 tenant won, meaning the landlord stole upwards of $2,000 from the other tenants.
Of the 22 cases lost, 6, or 1/4th, were lost because tenants didn’t know their rights and either didn’t show up or didn’t file within the limited 44 day window.
What needs to change to make the Housing Board of Review a more effective bulwark against thieving landlords?
Better outreach. The board sees around 60 deposit disputes a year. In a city with 10,000 units of rental housing, that number is abysmal.
Make it clearer to tenants that other people can represent them at the Housing Board of Review. If people understood their rights better, that they could have someone represent them, many more college students who move away could be better represented.
Allow more than 44 days for tenants to bring complaints, at minimum an entire year. This is thousands of dollars, sometimes a tenants’ entire savings being stolen from them with little recourse. 44 days is not enough time, especially if someone has trouble finding a new apartment/new job etc.
Make it easier to win double for withholding deposits. As more tenants come before the board, and we have more data about which landlords are keeping deposits, we should make it easier for tenants to win back double. Landlords should be conservative withholding deposits and should be punished when they continue to do so.
This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1,2, 3, 4, are here.
Folks who support the Downtown Privitization Plan will tell you our downtown economy is struggling. Yet what they don’t tell you is that while Burlington Business owners have seen profits grow by 20% in real value since 2008, downtown workers have not shared in any of those profits.
The many pro-business/anti-worker folks (along with the powerful Burlington Business Association) supporting the city’s rushed Downtown Improvement District, a plan that does absolutely nothing to meaningfully increase democratic participation or offer inclusion to marginalized voices, will tell you that this privatization plan needs to happen. They will offer the same arguments they used when trying to sell us the ongoing $22-million-public-funding mall debacle.
They will tell you that Burlington’s economy, and Church Street, are dying, and the only way to save our entire city is not by making sure everyone has enough money to afford basic necessities so they can support local businesses, but rather that we hand over even more control to wealthy non-Burlington landlords and non-Burlington businesses.
Why is it that Burlington is a good enough place for many of these folks to make money, on the backs of workers and renters, but not a good enough place for them to live, raise children, and spend said profits in?
The data, however, doesn’t support their doom-and-gloom claims for business owners (for workers and renters, that’s a different story for another day). In fact, Burlington’s economy is very stable and has been growing well (20%) since the Great Recession, particularly when we account for weakened unions, runaway healthcare costs, growing income and wealth inequality, and stagnant wages for most residents.
Meal, Rooms, and Alcohol sales have grown by 69% when factored in for inflation.
The picture is much less rosy when we consider Retail and Use taxes, which have been hit hard by many factors, including the problem that most workers pay over 40% of their post-taxed income to rent.
Sales and Use taxes have decreased by 50% when factored with inflation.
It looks like maybe the Burlington economy, while not a magical beast that can defy national and international trends of wealth inequality and global capital ravishing local economies, has been quite consistent.
The truth is that since 2005, when accounting for inflation, our economy has shrunk by 1.1%.
Since January 2009, Burlington’s retail and food economy have grown by 20% overall, so why again do we need to hand over power to the few folks who have actually made money since the 2009 Recession?
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.
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.
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
William Keogh Sr.
William Keogh Sr.
Jeffrey L. Schulman
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.
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,
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,
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?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.