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.

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.

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.)

Are Poor Families and Children Being Priced Out of Burlington?

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

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

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

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

All data can be found here.

Bissonette and Legal Mass-Evictions

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

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

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

The Other Side of Gentrification – A Tale of Two Burlingtons

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

A Lack of Affordable Retail and Household Goods

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

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

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

A Lack of Affordable Housing

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

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

 

Are Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative? Part 1 of 3


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.

The New Burlington Town Center Is Already Hurting Working Class Residents

I have been a very vocal critic of the Burlington Town Center for several years, mainly because the development relies on trickle down housing and trickle down economics to help low income residents. A recent article in VTDigger about UVM Medical Center’s expansion to the BTC, and the pressure and ‘passion’ Mayor Weinberger used to persuade them to move there, shows how the Mayor’s policies consistently hurt more residents, especially vulnerable ones, than help them.

Sources said the mayor lost his cool at the meeting and reminded hospital officials about the sweet deal they had for city services, though Weinberger said that argument was “not a major part of the conversation,” largely because the city’s hands are tied for another decade plus.

(As an aside, the Mayor’s ‘passion’, which has been described to me as temper tantrums, a good source tells me is a big reason why beloved former Library Director Rubi Simon decided to leaver her job and move out of state over a year ago.)

Now that the hospital will be paying an extra $1,00,000 a year, who will be paying for it? As the article makes clear, “patients”. It’s as if the mayor is so insulated from the yearly 8%-10% yearly increase in healthcare costs and premiums, that adding another $1,000,000 onto the backs of overworked Burlingtonians remains somehow overlooked. Not to mention that UVM Medical Center will likely use this as an excuse to continue paying MUCH less than the fair share of a $1 billion business should be paying for their fees in lieu of property taxes.

Who will benefit from the Burlington Town Center? Businesses on and around Church Street, landlords, hotels, and restaurants. Bringing people to the downtown core, even just for a few hours, means they will spend some amount of money there. The city will likely see a small increase in sales tax and alcohol tax revenue. Property taxes, however, will remain stagnant for 20 years, due to voters’ majority to support the TIF vote (supported almost unanimously by city councilors except Max Tracy). Instead of getting upto $1,000,000 a year in badly needed revenue, we will have to wait until the next generation is voting and having children.

Who will lose from the Burlington Town Center? Workers, especially low-wage workers, service workers, and now anyone who uses the UVM Medical Center (which is, essentially, everyone because they have a monopoly). Wages for service workers continue to remain stagnant, and likely the wealthy Church Street business owners, most of whom don’t live in Burlington, will end up pocketing any extra revenue.

“This decision is highly defensible” after all the factors are weighed, Weinberger said.

As long as those factors don’t include the vast majority of Burlington workers and service workers? Mayor Weinberger, the working class hero.

The Boves are Slumlords and the City Shouldn’t Work with Them

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.

How does Burlington Deal with Violence and Mental Health?

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Burlington is no stranger to police shootings. Four years ago a mentally ill man was killed by police officers in the New North End, and last March a mentally ill man was killed downtown in his home by police, while this August our city councilors overwhelmigly passed an ordinance to criminalize behaviors often associated with homeless people. It is not clear what, exactly has changed in those 4 years, or how this new ordinance will help our growing mental health crises. We as a community need a clear plan, increased public education, and outreach to local communities affected by this crises about how to best help those in need. As a city, we need civilian oversight of our police department to ensure that our police policies are constantly monitored for equity and consistency, we need to support further deescalation trainings for our officers, and stronger mental health services and increased funding for alcohol and mental health treatment for our homeless. By doing this we can make sure we treat our homeless neighbors with compassion, fairness, and respect as members of our community, while also recognizing the unique challenges they face.

There is no question that there are some people downtown who make this city unsafe for everyone, but a lot of folks living on the street are doing their best to survive with complex trauma and years of substance abuse with the added stressor of homelessness. There are no easy answers to this growing crises of inadequate mental health services, growing poverty and income inequality, which can make those of us who have homes and strong support networks feel self-aware of the privileges we take for granted. As Kelly Devine, BBA director, recently summed up, “Everyone should feel comfortable downtown.” Yet we must do more than make everyone comfortable – we must treat these homeless folks as our neighbors even in the face of discomfort – and we should hold our elected leaders to the same expectations – or else our language will more closely treat our homeless as if they are invaders, undeserving of our city’s typical forward-thinking, progressive policies. This sort of language will inevitably hurt everyone. What incentive do homeless folks have to be decent if we treat them as outsiders, and what incentive do wealthier folks have to treat them humanely if we are constantly being told they are so different from us, so much more violent, so much outside our community that we must create laws specifically for them?

A clear plan forward led by our homeless residents and mental health workers would be ideal for helping our homeless, especially since opinion by our politicians is so divided. Councilors Tracy and Dieng want to put more money behind treatment, councilors Wright and Knodell want to treat the symptoms of homelessness, Chief del Pozo and Mayor Weinberger want to lower the visibility of homelessness so that there are less downtown public safety concerns, while also protecting our nonviolent homeless population. We need mental health professionals and those who struggle with the affliction to lead the community around helping our neighbors, as we have seen work so well with the opioid epidemic.

As an aside, I believe that it is a noble goal to protect all residents including our homeless, but moving our vulnerable populations away from the public will allow the violence in our homeless community to be less contained and less visible. Would the man at City Hall Park who had his throat slashed survive if he was out in the woods at a homeless encampment? The death of homeless resident Amos Beede last year leads me to believe the answer would be no. All the more reason to work towards integrating our homeless residents into the larger community, so that we can keep all members of our community safe regardless of where, or how, they live.

We must remember that we are working to help people, not simply solve a problem. Homeless folks not only need more patience from us, they deserve it. While it is easy to pass judgement, the real emotional and physical struggle that our homeless neighbors suffer daily is something few of us understand, which is why it would be best if we began listening to our homeless experts – our homeless and mental health professionals who work with them – and give them voices at the table when it comes to formulating new ordinances and laws, on and off a civilian-controlled police oversight commission. By doing this we can ensure that new ordinances are written and policed equitably, that we help our homeless with treatment and compassion, and by working with more marginalized voices, we can create a stronger community for all of us.