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.)
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.
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.
In the coming week I will discuss, in a several part series, why our board and commission process, from public outreach to voting, is deeply deeply flawed. It is so flawed, in fact, that it’s impressive our boards and commissions have any diversity, but homogeneity isn’t as far off as you may think.
Today I’d like you to take a look at the commission and board data I collected from the 2016-2017 year. Names were removed to protect privacy (even though this is all public information, which I’m happy to share for the doubters among us), and the points on the map are congregating in a general location so as to keep home addresses private. It is also important to note that ‘home value’ is actually ‘assessed value’, which means housing values are only around 85% of the true value. I’ve chosen to stick with the assessed numbers, for consistency and for reasons that will be come clear in later posts.
Please do not excuse the pun – little do you know I get paid by the pun.
There was a PIAP (public investment action plan) that occurred a couple years ago when the city wanted to redevelop parts of the waterfront. I remember reading about the details and finding a couple points that just didn’t quite add up.
1) The PIAP was won by private developers Burlington Harbor LLC, a group made up of three folks, one of whom is Chuck DesLauriers, co-owner of Hotel Vermont. Hotel Vermont was designed by architects at Truex and Cullins. The chair of the PIAP process? Bill Truex.
2) The private PIAP got a final score of 79, while the public marina scored 78.8, and I have been unable to find how they were scored. That’s so close for comfort, one would hope that every aspect of that grading process would be as transparent and open to the public as possible. A records request may soon be in order if I cannot find those documents soon.
One would hope that local leaders would recognize that the appearance of conflict can be just as destructive as an actual conflict, but the appearance may be the least troubling aspect of this process. It turns out that 3 months after the PIAP was completed, Burlington Parks and Rec won a prestigious $1,500,000 national award from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for their rejected proposal.
This leaves us with a few really important questions: How was the PIAP process done, and did those involved in the PIAP process know that Parks and Rec had submitted a huge grant? If it was known, why wouldn’t the city wait the 3-4 months until they knew if Parks and Rec would win the grant, and factor that into their final PIAP decisions? Also, after learning that the Perkins Pier Enhancement may still be happening, what is the point of a PIAP process in the first place if the city can decide to move forward with whatever proposals they want? And lastly how, if this project was good enough to beat nearly every major city in the nation, did it manage to lose on the city level?
We, as a community, are at a crossroads. Recent policy decisions by our current administration continue to put the welfare of businesses and wealthy landlords over the needs of our residents. But we can change that! A case study can be the Boves family, especially local landlord Rick Boves, shows us how if we let developers and landlords build for the good of the city, even when they have caused serious damage to residents, we send out a message that large landlords can play by a different set of rules.
Folks who have never rented from the Boves may not know that, as landlords, they leave much to be desired. In fact, after researching articles for this post, I have zero qualms calling them slumlords. As a former renter, the apartment wasn’t kept nice, where mice and house centipedes were regular guests, where you could still see bits of carpet where the floor met the wall. It wasn’t fixed up from the previous tenants before I moved in, and it cost a decent deal more than it was worth. So it is fair to say I’m a bit biased about the Boves as landlords.
Fortunately for us (but not for their tenants), there is quite an extensive history of the Boves’ treatment of their tenants. In 2013, the city held the restaurants’ liquor license due to over 40 housing codes they refused to resolve at their crumbling George Street apartments. I used to live on Monroe street and had the misfortune of walking by these miserable apartments every day. I cannot imagine how miserable it felt to live inside them.
You’d think, after an article like that came out shaming the Boves, they would spend a few dollars to at least make their apartments look decent on the outside. I think any reasonable, thoughtful landlord would admit their mistakes and try to change. But the Boves made no such efforts. In May of this year, with another 38 code violations still pending, the Bove family decided to knock down the apartments to build newer, pricier apartments (and a hotel), which their current tenant certainly couldn’t afford.
In 4 years, they have received over 78 code violations.
It gets worse. The renters in those apartments were all very low income residents, some of whom I’ve been told even worked for Boves. If this feels like a Charles Dickens novel, you wouldn’t be wrong. These folks lived in abysmal housing, where “violations including broken windows, leaky plumbing, a cracked toilet seat, failed caulking, defective cooking equipment, and cracked walls and holes in the ceiling” were left unfixed. These aren’t the sort of violations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix – they are the type of reasonable fixes ANY landlord should make.
Instead of fixing up the apartments, the Bove family has moved their tenants to other buildings and are knocking it down to build luxury housing. What are the odds that the old tenants will be given affordable units?
Once, when Boves was cited for ‘(L)live electrical wires dangling from a ceiling” at a North Williams apartment, the place was deemed uninhabiatble by Code Enforcement. What did the Boves have to say?
“You can write whatever you like. It doesn’t much matter to me.”
Now, the city, supported by Mayor Weinberger and by CEDO Director Noelle McKay, are considering selling a parking lot to Boves so he can build a boutique hotel. Land is a hot commodity in Burlington, and land this close to downtown, with support, could easily be converted into MUCH needed homeless or very low income housing – hell, it could and should be used to give Bove’s former tenants a decent place to live.
If this development happens, and if the city supports this development by selling off land, we will be sending a really terrible message, one where if you ignore our local laws, if you treat fellow human beings like shit, you will be rewarded.
We need to send our elected officials a message that this type of behavior should NOT be rewarded. Please email Director McKay, please email your city councilors and come to the city council meeting in a few weeks where councilors will vote on whether to sell land to Boves. They clearly do not deserve to be landlords, never mind to build new hotels or apartments in our beautiful city.