I have been very busy the last…many months but as I return to writing and blogging I wanted to let folks know that I started a podcast with a close friend of mine where we take in-depth looks at Vermont politics and the incestuous relationship between power + local capitalists. We have 6 or so episodes so far and are hoping to average at least two a month. Our most recent episode we discuss Councilor Pine’s relationship to landlords.
Also, although I removed my personal Patreon a while back, Brie and I do have a patreon for the podcasts if you’d like to chip in! Costs go to cover equipment, childcare costs, server hosting. Anything extra goes to booze cuz we need it after most episodes.
As City Councilor Brian Pine makes his pitch to be Burlington’s next ‘Progressive’ mayor (and receives some one-sided press coverage as a ‘Bridge Builder‘), most of the public may not know that his personal image is drastically different from who he is behind the scenes. While he sells himself as being different from Democrats, his decade-long strategy of backroom deals with landlords, developers, and slumlords, shows that he cares more about placating those in power than organizing or supporting the working class. Bridge builders often build in public, but in private they show their true nature and allegiances.
As we have seen with city councilors like Joan Shannon, a common local strategy is to plan and organize with landlords privately. When those folks then speak at public comment, this ‘outspoken random support’ is then used as a way to justify their reactionary, and anti-working class votes. While Brian Pine may occasionally pivot with the political winds, if he is mayor we will see the same bullying, shady backroom deals, and nakedly political upper-class maneuvering that we have seen under Weinberger and the Burlington Democrats.
Brian Can’t Keep His Mall Support Story Straight
My experience and involvement in Burlington politics gives me insight into who Councilor Pine really is. My story starts in August 2016, when I received a call from Brian Pine about the mall redevelopment ballot items. I was chair of the Burlington Progressive Steering Committee at the time, and we had recently released all the reasons we did not support the mall redevelopment. At the time, Pine publicly said he was uncomfortable with the statement because he worried it would “have the effect of potentially alienating not only Progressives, but I think it would put the party at odds with the consensus of Burlington.”
At this point I had been trying to get Pine involved again in the party for months and he had refused, so I was surprised to receive a call out of the blue from him. In this call he yelled at me for not supporting the mall project. He blamed me for ‘ruining the party’ (I had been chair for maybe a year at that point) and put the mall redevelopment inter-party conflict at my feet. Afterwards he told other Party members that we had a great conversation and were friendly afterwards. That wasn’t true.
The truth is that Brian’s opinions on most things constantly change with the political winds; as a Progressive his ideology is neoliberalism with a twist. After yelling at me for not support the mall redevelopment, Pine tried to distance himself from his very public support of it, lying many times in the process.
…former city councilor Brian Pine actively encouraged local residents to pass two ballot items that clear the way for developer Don Sinex to build up to 14 stories and for the city to restore two streets and improve others using $21.8 million in tax increment financing.”
Brian actively supported the project in 2016 with no public qualms. He went on to say that ‘increasing the housing supply should help reduce real estate costs across the income spectrum‘, a classic neoliberal and Mayor Weinberger argument. He also took a video supporting the mall redevelopment for Mayor Weinberger’s developer-heavy PAC, the Partnership for Burlington’s Future.
In a Seven Days article from 2018 when he was running for council, Pine said he supported the mall redevelopment and ‘would have voted to boost the building height limits’.
The story keeps changing. In a Burlington Free Press article from August of this year, Pine said,
…that early on, from 2014 through 2016, Sinex and CityPlace forged a great “synergy” with the Burlington community, promising “rebirth” for the core of downtown. “Things were great,” Pine said. “If they had continued to focus on essentially delivering on the possibility that came from that synergy, leveraging lots of public and private resources to pull off this project, I think we’d be in a very different place.”
“Things have not gone at all according to plan,” he said. “Promises made were not kept. Trust that was built has been shattered. I’d say we are very skeptical of the ability to repair that relationship.”
Then, just last week, Pine changed his story for a fourth time on a Reddit AMA. When pressed about his support for the mall redevelopment, he said he was not on City Council when the vote was taken, and that the property was likely headed for foreclosure and that’ something had to be done…he had reservations about the scale of the project and was not sure the developer could be trusted’.
Our ruling class continues to use unethical means to ensure tenants in Burlington continue to be screwed over by landlords. This time however, it is Joan Shannon, a sitting city councilor Charter Change Committee Member and landlord, misusing her position to enrich herself, with the help of chief housing inspector Bill Ward.
Together the two of them colluded to make sure every landlord the city works with knew about the city charter change which would definitely help tenants. Councilor Shannon worked with a department head to kneecap activists and tenants of the Burlington Tenants Union and others.
They didn’t just reach out to the Tenants Union and the Landlord Association; they went above and beyond and used emails the city received from taxed and official city business to drum up opposition to this change. On top of this, Joan used her position on the Charter Change committee to make it seem as if the entire committee was inviting these landlords even though it was just her.
Shannon even directs Bill Ward to include specific language in the email. Is this legal? Is it ethical? Is it an obvious conflict of interest, another in a long line from Councilor Joan Shannon?
Because Joan makes multiple requests to direct exactly what Mr Ward is saying. No longer is he a ‘neutral’ department head; he is doing the bidding of a single city councilor with an agenda to protect her own profits and wealth.
Don’t believe me? Here’s her reactionary thoughts on rent control and just cause evictions.
We are lowly peasants, they are our lords. When you call Code Enforcement, just remember who they work for; their capitalist friends.
It was interesting to see Mayor Weinberger and the city of Burlington argue on the one hand that the only way to solve the housing crises is to increase housing vacancy rates through the housing market, while agreeing on the other hand to legalize and ‘regulate’ (I use the term loosely) Airbnb. If they cared about housing vacancy rates, or they cared about renters, they would have banned Airbnb outright.
Airbnb helps tourists find cheap housing and helps landlords make huge profits, while hurting the actual workers and renters that live in a community. And yet according to the city of Burlington,
410 unique short-term rental listings across many platforms (HC). This represents approximately 2% of all housing units in the city. There was a 25% increase in short-term rentals between 2018-2019 (HC), and the total number doubled from 2016-2019 (AirDNA).
AirDNA reports 66% of rentals are for the whole housing unit, and that 76% of listings were efficiency, one bedroom, or two-bedroom units.
What does this mean? In a city with 10,000 units and a 1.7% vacancy rate, 271 units, or 2.7%, have been taken off the housing market. If the city cared about housing vacancy, why wouldn’t they be excited for the opportunity to double the housing vacancy in one fell swoop?
The reason is that the folks in power, developers and landlords, would lose out if Airbnb was banned and heavily enforced. By keeping supply low, landlords are able to milk even more money from tenants. Developers can continue to make large profits on new buildings.
The city argues that they are getting money back – a whole $7,900 per unit, or $659 a month, and that therefore it is a good deal for tenants. That doesn’t even cover the cost of a moderately priced one-bedroom apartment. Hell, good luck finding anything in this city that isn’t run by CHT for that price.
And while the city claims that they will enforce the rule that ‘hosts’ (owner or tenant…so a landlord can rent out an apartment to an employee who then runs said Airbnb units) need to be living on site, this will lead to one of two different endings. 1) All the ‘accessory dwelling units the Mayor has proposed will turn in to Airbnbs (if you look at Airbnb in the South End, they already have), or 2) there’s no real enforcement mechanism (which has been outsourced to a ‘third party’ aka privatized), no defined fines for when landlords ignore such laws.
The loopholes write themselves. One has to wonder whether this was all intentional, just done through plain ignorance, or likely a mixture of the two? Renters continue to lose under this neoliberal, trickle-down housing ideology, while corporate giants like Airbnb continue to ruin communities.
Gentrification and neoliberalism are killing Burlington, turning the city into another Seattle or San Fransisco. Low-income residents and residents of color are being pushed out of the city, high-end services and restaurants are replacing low-income-community-conscious businesses. Wealthy Old North End developers and landlords like Erik Hoekstra (Redstone, Butch and Babes), Jacob Hindsdale, and Bill Bissonnette seem very happy to be making a profit off of trauma and displacement. Wealthy residents and transplants are excited to try out every new restaurant and brewery. For the rest of us stuck struggling to pay rent, Burlington is dying.
In Burlington’s Old North End, 300 low-income households have been priced out of the neighborhood and the city. QTs has been replaced by a yoga studio and Butch and Babes. The Workers Center and Off Center for the Dramatic Arts have been evicted by Jacob Hindsdale, heir to the Hindsdale slum fortune (and partner to former State Rep Kesha Ram), replaced with an indoor ax-throwing and cocktail business, owned by the same folks who own several local Escape Rooms. Great for tourists and new wealthy residents with disposable income, terrible for most workers and renters.
Low-income workers continue to get the short end of the stick. Wealthy Vermonters are becoming much wealthier, while everyone else finds it harder and harder to survive. Since 2010, the wealthiest Vermonters have seen a 70% increase in income, and a 40% increase just from 2016 to 2017. Older, low-income Vermonters are being priced and forced out of the state, while wealthier and younger, very economically privileged millenials making over $100,000 a year, are moving in. At the same time, when factoring in inflation, Vermont’s minimum wage hasn’t increased since the 1980s. These children of wealthy elites are displacing long-term communities, destroying the social fabric of our city.
Mayor Weinberger trusts that the market, aka a handful of wealthy elites, which has already displaced so many lives, will solve all our problems. A developer and devout ideological capitalist, Weinberger believes that by building ‘market-rate’ housing, housing that is often actually luxury housing for the vast majority of renters, we can ‘solve’ our housing crises. However, studies shows that for every 100 upper-class residents that move into a community, the community needs to build 25-43 more units of housing for low-income workers. That means that without rent regulation, even with inclusionary zoning, every new market-rate building actually makes the housing situation for low-income renters much worse. Those who support the non-profit-industrial-complex’s Building Homes Together Campaign should be aware that their program, which continues to fall far short of their own modest goals, does more harm than good.
Low Income Rental Units Disappeared
According to a new report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University (for any Ivy League neoliberal technocrats listening), since 1990 nearly 11,000 units of ‘naturally affordable housing’ for low-income renters have disappeared from Vermont, while another 15,000 new units of housing for higher-income renters have been created. In Burlington, that number roughly equates to losing 1400 low-income units, affordable for a family of 4 in extreme poverty, (making less than 30% Area Median Income), while 1,000 moderate-income units and 2,000 higher-income units have entered the market.
One set of data from CEDO’s 2013 and 2018 Consolidated Housing Plan show how in just a 5-year span neoliberalism and gentrification have hurt low-income tenants in Burlington. It is likely that many of the folks making 50-80% AMI have fallen to 30% AMI, swelling the number of extremely low-income renters another 2,300 households and greatly increasing the already dire need for low-income housing.
On top of this, over 430 more low-income households (who have not yet been gentrified out of the city) are rent burdened; likely folks who fell out of the slightly higher income bracket and have fallen even further down the economic ladder.
Rents Increase, Landlords Profit
Data shows that Burlington’s average rents have increased on top of inflation by an additional 28% since 2000. This money is pure profit for landlords, especially the larger ones who have owned property for several decades. This isn’t surprising – while landlords often argue that rent increases are to cover maintenance costs, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board has shown that less than 10% of rent increases went back to the community through reinvestment and taxes; 70% of those increases went into the pockets of landlords as pure profit, on top of their housing wealth.
When we look at median gross rent in Burlington compared to rental costs in 2009, we see that in even in just the 8 years from 2009-2017, rents have increased 10% higher than inflation.
As you can see, even as more luxury rental units have been built, low-income housing hasn’t kept close to pace, and the percentage of rental housing that is affordable to low-income renters and workers continues to fall drastically, most likely when it comes to 1 and 2 bedroom units.
There are ways to make Burlington a place for everyone to live and thrive. However, if politicians continue with status quo politics, the type of politics that favor wealthy real estate interests and their ‘right’ to make a profit off of a basic necessity over neighborhood stability for low-income renters, expect Burlington to die. Expect Burlington to become, as Bernie said in the 80s, another bland over-priced city with expensive housing, over-priced rentals, luxury and boutique hotels. How can we kill a city like Burlington? Keep doing what we are doing and don’t look back.
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.
In early September Mayor Weinberger will have a second public meeting to discuss what housing policies the city will focus on over the next two years. However, whatever comes out of that meeting will be entirely useless, as everything has been decided by housing interests, business interests, and government insiders, many of whom don’t even live in Burlington. The winners will be those with wealth and real estate, while the losers will be low-wage service/retail workers and renters, the ignored backbone of Burlington’s college and tourist economy.
I’ll let the data do some of the speaking for me.
The biggest shocker is how unrepresentative the backgrounds of those who attended the housing summit were. Over 70% of attendees were there for work; they represented for-profit and non-profit housing organizations, business groups, local government employees, and those in finance/law. The majority of ‘stakeholders’ of this housing summit weren’t Burlington renters, weren’t service workers, but were folks who had to be there for work or had a direct financial stake in the final result.
Mayor Weinberger will tell you that the Housing Summit was an inclusive process which will help all residents, especially low-income and marginalized residents. Don’t believe the bullshit and spin, as few of those folks were included in the process – it was another sham process with a predetermined outcome, one which continues to enrich the wealthy area residents while disenfranchising low-income residents.
Over the past couple of years Burlington, and in particular Burlington Electric Department, have rolled out several initiatives that leaders claim are meant to help low-income residents. Yet these incentives, often in the form of rebates, are handouts to a handful of individual wealthy residents while doing absolutely nothing to make our environment fairer for those at the bottom, for those experiencing climate change the hardest.
“I consider it a starting point really,” said Darren Springer, the utility’s new manager. “I think we want to do much, much more in this space. We want to make it so that every customer who is interested in electric vehicles can access them.”
Springer said the rebate is not just about helping low-income people join the energy revolution — it’s also to help Burlington Electric meet a state mandate.
These $80,000 would have been better spent adding more buses to our meek public transit system, so that buses could be more consistent. The money could have been used to run better bus services on weekends. It could have been used to give out 1300 free bus passes to low-income residents, or try a trial program of universal free buses. All of this would have done more to reduce emissions than helping 75 wealthy people, who don’t need the money, to buy a new electric vehicle.
The problem with neoliberal environmentalism, which is entirely based on individual solutions (like the class-biased bike share program above) and not community-oriented solutions, is that the folks most likely to access these services are those already with means. Our city’s ‘environmental’ programs are never used by those who we are told is the intended target. For a public utility, they sure seem focused on helping those who need support the least.
With Mayor Weinberger putting on a housing summit next month, now is the time to advocate for bold, meaningful policies that redistribute wealth in a way to ensure that nobody has to live unwalled. A wealth tax on millionaires will raise $7.5 million a year for low-income housing projects throughout the city.
Burlington has over 400 for-profit, private, millionaires who own a combined $1.5 billion in property wealth, more than the combined wealth of UVM and the UVM Medical Center. Not only are these 1%ers’ property often taxed at assessed rates much less than their value, but taxing their wealth would help pay for desperately needed low-income housing, without negatively affecting the vast majority of Burlington workers and residents.
The current Housing Trust Fund, funded to the tune of a measly $520,000 a year, can outright fund the construction of only 2 low-income units every year, yet the city needs to build over 5,000 homes for low and moderate-income residents (making less than 80% of the Area Median Income – AMI) to meet our city’s housing needs, yet only 170 homes for those making over 80% AMI. In fact, 2,900 low-income households are paying more than 50% of their income in housing. (Can be found on the city’s Consolidated Housing Plan draft, Page 10.)
Unfortunately, Mayor Weinberger and the City Council seem to think market rate housing, which is affordable to those making 100% AMI, will somehow solve the 5,000 units of low-income housing that these folks need. According to the same Consolidated Housing Plan, 170 folks making between 80%-100% AMI are paying 30% or more on rent, while 0 are paying 50% of their income or more.
If we taxed these millionaires at an additional one half of one percent, .5% every year, the city could raise an additional $7.6 million dollars a year for low-income housing. According to the city’s recent Inclusionary Zoning report, this money could fully fund and build an additional 30 units of truly low-income housing every year. With loans, financing, and low-income tax credits, that number increases even more. As an example, Redstone’s building at 258 North Winooski Ave, with 23 units and 41 bedrooms, along with first-floor retail space, cost roughly $3.5 million dollars. Even with overhead and maintenance, likely 50+ units of permanently and truly affordable low-income housing could be built every year in Burlington, 25x more than is currently built.
Even if we decided to be cheap, and only tax these 400 millionaires at one tenth of one percent, or .1%, we could still raise $1,500,000 a year for housing, 3x more than our Mayor and Council have dedicated to housing over this last decade.
In conclusion: Tax the wealth of the wealthiest 1% of landowners so that everyone can have safe, affordable housing. It’s easy and would actually put some money where our values supposedly are.
Burlington is a town of extremes. 1% of residents control housing for 50-60% of the population, totaling nearly $3 billion in property. This staggering level of wealth concentrated in the hands of 500 individuals contradicts the idea that 1) there isn’t enough wealth in Burlington to clothe, feed, house, and educate every Burlington resident and 2) that Burlington and its local housing institutions are inclusive or democratic.
The extreme wealth, and the power that comes with that wealth and control of housing stock, are in the hands of a few individuals – local colleges, local non-profit landlords, and local for-profit landlords. The few dozen board members of these colleges and non-profits, most of whom are wealthy and far removed from the ‘working class’, make important decisions that affect all of us behind closed-doors.
UVM, the UVM Medical Center, and Champlain College own a combined $1.1 billion dollars in assets, along with 7200 bedrooms serving 11,000+ student renters. While Champlain College pays taxes on most of their assessed properties (granted, some of their assessments online are so grossly low it should be laughable), UVM and the UVM Medical Center don’t pay a dime in property taxes on their combined $1 billion in assets. And since there is no local Burlington income tax, most of the income generated at these institutions, along with their tax bases, flee to the suburbs every night.
These institutions are all run by carefully selected boards of the county’s business, development, financial, and political elites, along with 6 and 7 figure CEOs. Of the 25 UVM trustees, less than half (12) are either students or legislators. Of Champlain College’s 26 trustees, several are millionaire developers themselves. Of the 17 UVM Medical Center trustees, 4 (including the $2 million-a-year-salary CEO are medical professionals). Of the 68 people in charge, at most maybe 10-15% are not in the wealthiest 20% of residents.
Local non-profit housing landlords also have their fair share of wealth and power. Combined, these organizations own a (very under-assessed) $165 million in property, while controlling 3,175 bedrooms. These organizations pay little in property taxes, under the assumption that by offering rent below-market, they are performing a social and community good.
These non-profit boards, while often made up more of professional-class Vermonters than the 6 and 7-figure Vermonters of our medical/collegiate institutions, are limited in number and scope. None of these groups have majority boards made up of the working-class or low-income clients they serve. CHT has 15 board members, 5 of whom (33%) are actual clients served by the organization. BHA has 5 wealthier board members, selected by the (also wealthy) city council. Cathedral Square has 12 board members, most of whom are much wealthier than the other two non-profit boards (including, for some reason, Erik Hoekstra of Redstone in an uncomfortable, and incestuous, conflict of interest). Of these 32 folks, only 15% likely come from the bottom 80%.
The list of our city’s 400 millionaires – for-profit residential landlords, homeowners, and commercial landlords, is long. Their combined wealth is $1.5 billion dollars and they control a total of 12,100 bedrooms.
These 500 individuals, the millionaires + board members, control assets easily valued near $3 billion. In a city where 30,000 people have $0 in property assets, this is staggering wealth inequality. Not only that, but these folks control, 22,475 beds, or nearly 30,000 renters (when we factor in the average number of residents per bedroom at 1.33), giving them direct influence over the lives of over 50% of all residents of the city.
It’s worth wondering who impacts your life more on a daily basis – Congress in Washington DC, or the 500 wealthiest and most powerful Vermonters in your own backyard? And it’s worth wondering what, exactly, can we do to give power back to renters and workers?