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.
The city of Burlington loves Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) – whether it be for the Moran Plant, waterfront improvements, the mall redevelopment, or the nontransparent private marina process – even though TIFs are seriously flawed. TIFs are sold on flimsy and false promises – from helping low income communities to boosting the economy when it wouldn’t have been boosted otherwise. On top of this, TIFs in practice are undemocratic. Politicians will ask voters to approve a supposed done deal but they often amount to a blank check finalized behind closed doors by a select few. It’s time to end TIFs and invest public funds in low-income communities.
TIFs are districts where cities can ‘leverage’ private investment by borrowing on future property value increases. While there may be some benefits, those benefits are unproven and do not outweigh the many many downsides to TIFs.
The 6 problems with TIFs:
Once you vote on the idea, you don’t get to choose the final product even if the final product is drastically different than the initial idea. See: private marina, mall redevelopment, City Hall Park.
While TIF money may have originally been used to help struggling downtowns, it is now used in mainly wealthy downtowns to improve infrastructure for wealthy land owners. For example, the mall is owned by a multi-billion dollar investment company but supposedly wouldn’t build this project unless taxpayers gave them 9% of their funding costs for free. TIF money never seems to be used for programs to support those in poverty, like funding new low-income housing.
TIFs hurts our public schools by taking desperately-needed millions out of the education fund for 20+ years, as TIFs money is split 75/25 education fund and general fund. The money used to improve our downtown never reaches Burlington’s low income children.
TIFs raise rents and cost of living for everyone else by accelerating property values in urban areas past typical levels of inflation. They, like Downtown Improvement Districts, lead to accelerated gentrification.
TIFs are sold as being integral to spurring new development, but are based on a false and unproven assumption that the development wouldn’t have occurred ‘but for’ TIF money. In fact, the ‘but for’ clause means ‘but for that specific design/development plan’. So we have no way of knowing if some level of development would have occurred regardless. Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer has made is clear that this ‘but for’ clause is impossible to prove or audit.
The reality is that MANY people, when they vote for TIF, they vote for a specific project without realizing they’re writing a blank check for politicians who may be more interested in making wealthy interests and donors happy over ensuring the community meets everybody’s needs.
In the end, TIF money gambles on the future with little oversight or proof of its effectiveness. It takes badly needed property tax revenue, money that our schools desperately need, and gives it to investors so that they can boost their profits and wealth for the next 20 years while taxpayers pick up the tab. It’s time to end TIFs and fund local government through taxes, and if necessary, bonds.
UVM and Champlain College have a lot of power in shaping our community, in both positive and negative ways. We often hear about how 40% of UVM’s students living off campus increases non-students’ housing costs, and I’ve written about how as two of the city’s largest landlords with a captured client base, their exorbitant room and board costs likely distort rents citywide. There’s a third way that UVM and Champlain College contribute to Burlington’s gentrification, and that’s their admissions processes which are highly geared towards very wealthy families.
Thanks to the New York Times we can see a snapshot of UVM and Champlain College students’ economic backgrounds and how they compare to Burlington’s residents in 2016. Both schools have high rates of students from very wealthy backgrounds and low rates of students from very poor backgrounds, particularly when compared to Burlington residents. The median college student family is nearly 3 times as wealthy as the median Burlington family.
According to their data, not only are more than half of UVM and Champlain students from the top 20% wealthiest families, but only 4%-6% of students came from the bottom 20%. College students in Burlington are wealthy at 3 times the rate that Burlington residents are, while Burlington residents have 5-8 times higher rates of poverty than college students in Burlington.
These schools function less like educational institutions striving towards equity and more like businesses trying to maximize profits and growth. That’s the reason students and faculty are fighting against the administrations’ cuts to programs that aren’t ‘making money’.
More students come from families making $2.2 million a year than families making under $22,800 a year. A full 8,000 students come from families wealthier than 82% of all Burlington households.
NYTimes data shows that the trend of students coming from families much wealthier than Burlington residents has been consistent or increasing for decades. While UVM has become slightly less accessible since the early 2000s, Champlain College has catered towards significantly wealthier students and is their student body is now comparable to UVM’s.
How does an admissions process that caters to wealthy students effect low and moderate income Burlington residents? How does this process hurt low-income college students? How is such a model sustainable, and how do we keep Burlington from becoming an elite town for wealthy students and the business community that caters to them? Lastly, who is holding UVM and Champlain responsible for their role in hastening gentrification and making life harder for Burlington’s low income residents including low-income college students?
For years now we have been hearing anecdotes about the harmful effects of gentrification on low income families in Burlington. The data in this post shows that elected officials have done nothing to slow the destruction of the widening income gap, while the low-income families remaining in Burlington are those living in worsening, abject poverty.
Over a year ago I asked Mayor Weinberger about what he would do to stop poor residents from being legally evicted by ever-increasing gentrification, and he told me that this was “the best system we had” and offered no solutions to help these families. I clarified. “Are you saying that the best we can do in Burlington is let 300 poor families be priced out of the city?” Weinbeger said yes.
A year ago I researched childhood poverty in Chittenden County from 2003-2016 using free/reduced public school lunch data*, and discovered that while Burlington had lowered childhood poverty by 8%, nearly every surrounding communities’ childhood poverty increased. I believed at the time that this was likely a result of gentrification, poor families being priced out.
The data shows that my theory is correct – within just 7 years, upwards of 30% of Burlington’s poor families have been priced out of Burlington.
While the overall number of BTV households have increased by 6% since 2009, and median income (adjusted for inflation) increased 8% ($3,445), low-income folks have not shared in this wealth. In fact, the income gap during this time increased 18% between households making under $35k a year and those making over $75k a year.
When you look a bit more into the data, low-income families have clearly been hit the worst by, so much so that in Burlington their share as a percentage of all families has decreased by 19% and 17% respectively. Yet 40% of Burlington’s children live in poverty because the families that are able to remain, thanks to public housing, limited housing vouchers, and limited nonprofit housing, are in ever greater poverty.
We are in a housing crises and our elected officials keep promoting trickle-down market-rate housing as a solution, which does nothing to slow the ravages of gentrification. After 7 years of failed policies under conservatives and centrists like Mayor Weinberger, council Democrats, and council Progressives, isn’t it time we tried some better policies that have a proven track record of helping low-income families, like investing money in low-income housing, rent protections, and higher minimum wage?
*A family of 3, average Burlington size, cannot make more than $37,167, or 1.85 times the federal poverty rate, in 2016 dollars, to qualify for free or reduced lunch.
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:
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.
Create better incentives for landowners to redevelop, and make sure these incentives are consistent.
Change the zoning laws to encourage fairer, more dense development throughout the city.
Stop giving out one-time zoning changes for large, single developers, especially since these properties tend to be monolithic and less attractive as neighborhoods.
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.)
If we want to solve our housing crisis, we have to know the city’s housing profile – what type of housing is needed and at what cost. Otherwise, we will end up using scarce city resources on solving problems that aren’t really problems, like building a thousand market-rate units of housing. Burlington’s current administration’s focus on market-rate housing shows how focusing on the wrong demographic can do little, if any, good to help most vulnerable residents.
Data from the 2014 Vermont Housing Profile by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency bears this out: over 80% of people with income under $20,000 per year are in unaffordable housing, whereas a comparative 50% of people with income from $20,000 to $50,000 are in that situation, and fewer than 20% of people with income over $50,000 are in unaffordable housing. The pressures of trying to rent unaffordable housing on a low income mean that tenants often experience the brunt of the landlord tenant power imbalance that Griffin describes.
So while the vast majority of folks making over $50,000 can find affordable housing (defined as paying 30% of income), folks making less have serious trouble. And that’s a problem because so few housing policies are targeted at those who need it the most. 2017 HUD income limits show that 100% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for an individual is $58,000 a year and for a family of 4 it’s $83,000.
How Does Government Support Affordable Housing?
There are a couple ways that our government tries to support those on the lower end of the income ladder. Section-8 housing vouchers are based on a family paying 30% of their income up to a certain amount, regardless of how little or how much they earn. To get a voucher, one must expect to wait at least 10 years and then try to get one of the very few apartments that are still affordable for those with vouchers. The second way, Burlington’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, is based off of AMI, so that 15%-20% of new housing in Burlington is limited to those making around 65% of AMI – $38,000 for an individual and $54,000 for a family of 4. While AMI may seem like a useful target for building housing, the truth is that AMI is actually a fairly useless statistic. How so?
City and Suburbs
Area Median Income looks at the income of everyone in the Burlington-metro area. That means folks in Burlington, many of whom are in the service and non-profit industries, are lumped up in with the doctors and other high-income residents of Colchester, Shelburne, Charlotte, Williston, etc. This means that while AMI may be an appropriate number for those living in the entire area, it is too high of a number when used for Burlington, due to wealth disparities between city and suburbs, and rent disparities between homeowners and renters.
According to national data, the median income in cities is about 92% of the median income in surrounding, wealthier, towns. So if we take these numbers at face value, Burlington’s Median Income (BMI) is likely closer to $54,000 for an individual and $77,000 for a family of 4.
Renters and Homeowners
But Area Median Income includes homeowners, and we are really just looking today on how we can help low-income renters – so we want to know Burlington’s Median RENTER Income (BMRI) – and that number is drastically different than AMI or BMI. According to the aforementioned study, in 2010 median homeowner household income in Vermont was $65,000, while median renter household income was $31,000, or 48%.
So! That means, when apartments are built in the city, if we want them to meet our city’s median renters, we need units that are affordable for individuals making $26,000 and families of 4 making $37,000. Which means we need housing built for those making 44% of AMI, and that is just to help the median renter! In this light, what exactly has Burlington done to help Burlington’s median renters?
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.
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.