Brian Pine: Bridge Builder or Shady Backroom Deal Maker?

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.”

(Seven Days)

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.”

Burlington Free Press

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’.

Continue reading Brian Pine: Bridge Builder or Shady Backroom Deal Maker?

Burlington Cares More About Tourists and Landlords (AIRBNB) than Renters

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.

https://www.burlingtonvt.gov/mayor/housingpolicy/str

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.

Who Does Burlington’s Electric Department/Bike Share Help Most?

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.

Take for example, Burlington Electric’s plan last year to give a rebate to low and moderate income residents. Many of us questioned how a low-income resident can have a spare $10,000+ to spend on a new car, or $250+ a month for car payments. In May VPR looked at the program and found it to be an utter failure. 4% of rebates went to those with moderate or low incomes, and 2% of the money from rebates went to those folks. Yet Darren Springer had to try to spin this as a successful program.

“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.

None of the bike corrals are placed in low-income communities.

On top of this, Burlington Electric is now giving away $100 rebates for homeowners or $3500 rebates to lawn care businesses for electric mowers. Rebates for wealthier homeowners and business owners, nothing for low-income workers and renters.

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.

Burlington Needs a Wealth Tax

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.

Every Burlington Millionaire by Land Wealth – (Click to Enlarge)

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’s Land and Housing is Controlled By a Wealthy Few

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?

Can’t Afford A Home in Burlington? Blame Landlords, Realtors, and Homeowners

(You can access a full-screen map here.)

Burlington is an expensive place to live. With a limited supply of single and two family homes, whether they be condos, mobile homes, or standalone single-family housing, it’s tough for Burlington’s low-income renters to afford stable housing. In fact, 25% of all homes in the city are rented out as investment properties. Blame this on landlords, realtors, and homeowners.

With over 2100 units of housing (13% of all housing in the city) and 6700 beds (17% of all beds in the city) being rented out by investors, rented on Airbnb, or owned as a second home, there are few if any affordable homes left for people to buy. Without housing protections and limits, without zoning changes in wealthy low-residential areas, without a real public investment in long-term low-income housing, too many of these homes are easily converted into investment properties, selling for prices that are out of reach for most families and middle-income workers. This benefits some folks, mainly realtors, homeowners, and landlords, while the majority of us suffer with few options.

It’s interesting to see where and how much of different types of housing have been turned into rentals. Single family homes are rented throughout the city, but are most clustered around UVM, legally allowed through grandfather clauses, rented out to college students often in unofficial frats and sororities. Most two family homes, historically a way for poorer families to afford housing, are rented out in the Old North End. Condos tend to be spread out around city edges, not as much dispersed in communities but built in stark, repetitive and ugly, giant condo developments that are removed from actual neighborhoods. Expect ‘Cambrian Rise’ to offer much of the same.

The toughest part about staying in Burlington as a low-income renter and community mental health worker is that most new developments are rentals, and even new condos will be expensive, in ugly condo complexes, and many will likely be bought as investment properties, making it harder and harder for low and moderate-income residents to exist, never mind thrive, in Burlington.

Who are Burlington’s Largest Landlords?

After a year of research I’m proud to share my research around housing in Burlington. This map shows which landlords own at least 100 beds and how much they own. If you want to look at a full screen map, click here.

In a town where 60% of residents own $0 housing wealth, the wealth gap continues to grow, leaving a few hundred wealthy landlords with immense wealth, while the vast majority of residents have little or no wealth at all. In total, property owned by these 27 landlords, just in Burlington, is conservatively valued at $1.23 billion dollars. Yes, you read that right. They own over HALF of all housing units in the city and over 40% of all beds, totaling 16,600 beds and 8,600 total units of housing.

Even if we look just at large for-profit and non-profit landlords, (we can talk about the immense influence UVM and Champlain College exert over our rental costs another day) the wealth these private individuals and organizations own, and number of housing units they control, means a handful of folks exert enormous influence over most of our lives.

The true ‘market’ value is likely upwards of $300 million, but the data is harder to parse as non-profits aren’t always assessed like for-profit buildings.

The 23 largest private, for-profit landlords own nearly $400 million in property, with a median personal wealth of $11 million. They own over 3,101 units and 6,056 bedrooms, or 19% of all units and 15% of all bedrooms in the city.

How do we, as tenants, gain control when a handful of individuals have such influence over our lives? By working together, through solidarity, and forming a tenants’ union. While we may not have much wealth we do have numbers – in fact if all renters voted, we would be easily able to vote for rent control, better enforcement, swifter and harsher penalties when landlords fail to act, public lawyers to represent us, and other rent and tenant protections.

Why We Should Keep Inclusionary Zoning the Way it is

As I’ve been reading up on the inclusionary zoning working group (I unfortunately missed the last meeting today), I wanted to include some data I came across.

The truth is that the #1 reason more development has occurred in Burlington has less to do with Mayor Weinberger, less to do with any changes (and there have been very few changes in Mayor Weinberger’s first 6 years, except for some spot zoning) – the real reason is historically low interest rates.

 

If we as a city were to follow the recommendations of Erik Hoesktra of Redstone,  inclusionary zoning would only trigger when projects over 60 units large were built, killing 87% of all projects that built inclusionary zoning units. While building in bulk will lower some costs, the high cost of land and high cost of labor, along with historically low interest rates, and zoning laws that only favor density in poorer parts of town, are the main reasons we build or do not build new housing. Of the 2200 market rate units built during that time, 24%, or 545 units, were did not fall under inclusionary requirements (for now, we will ignore the hundreds of college units and college-associated housing that did not require IZ units). At minimum, 100 units of integrated housing would not have been built over the course of 20 years – 5 units a year, and at most 195 units would not have been built, or 10 units a year.

If you hear anyone saying that we haven’t built new housing because of inclusionary zoning, or that inclusionary zoning makes it nearly impossible for developers to make a profit, show them the data.

Seven Days Misses the Mark on Housing in Burlington

A recent article from Seven Days about Champlain College’s new dorms had a lot of quotes from a lot of people. I want to show how, as long as UVM and Champlain can charge whatever they want, our housing market will never resemble a ‘traditional’ supply and demand market. How, as long as properties are valued as investment properties, only the very wealthy will have any chance at affording to live in Burlington. New dorms may ease the housing crunch for a select few, but for the rest of us, we will continue to pay most of our low wages to wealthy landlords as we struggle to thrive.

Quote 1:

“This year, Sharp got no takers from ads on Craigslist. He dropped the rent from $2,800 to $2,700 a month, but still has not found tenants. “We may have to go to $2,600.”

The building, located at 24-28 Orchard Terrace, consists of four 3-bedroom units. As a 20-year home-owner, the mortgage is minimal if existent. Each bedroom rents for an astronomical $933 a month, grossing over $11,000 a month and $134,000 a year, and will be reduced to *only* $866, $10,400, and $125,000 respectively. Even after factoring in maintenance and property taxes (at $20,000 a year), that’s still more than $50,000 a year IN PROFIT just for owning a single building. That’s money that doesn’t go into the local Burlington economy.

No service worker, nonprofit worker, mental health worker, or early educator in Burlington could afford these rents, even at the reduced price.

Quote 2:

“Leases run for 11.5 months and aren’t cheap. They vary in cost from about $965 to $1,355 a month, including utilities and internet.”

The biggest housing issue isn’t supply and demand, but that UVM and Champlain college, two of the largest landlords in the city, have a huge captive market. They can charge whatever they damned please within ‘reason’, which grossly inflates the private market.

Quote 3:

“”If Champlain were ever to hold a yard sale, this could be its most valuable asset,” said John Caulo, an associate vice president at Champlain, as he gave Seven Days a tour.”

Good thing that this property doesn’t have to abide, for some reason, by inclusionary zoning laws like all the other for-profit developers in the city, or else it would lose some of its $36 million value, but atleast the city cleared $1.1 million for the prime downtown public property, (excluding half the cost of soil removal and treatment). The city has worked out an agreement for payments in lieu of property taxes for the next 20 years. After that, it’s the next generation’s problem and tax burden.

Quote 4:

“Champlain has terminated its lease of roughly 280 beds at Spinner Place apartments, effective this summer. That change has left the owners of that building on Winooski Falls Way hustling to find new tenants for the coming school year.”

So the vast majority of students were already housed in student-specific housing. Building 312 beds leaves a net total of 32 new beds. That sounds like great news for Winooski’s housing market, as 280 new beds open up. I’m not seeing how that really helps Burlington’s student housing crunch…

Quote 5:

“On a recent morning, the street was packed with parked cars bearing out-of-state license plates, and litter blew around the curbs and sidewalks. The discounts people are seeing on Craigslist haven’t filtered down to Bausch. Rentals remain “pricey,” she said.”

I bet, most of those discounts are towards the new ‘market-rate’ housing built by Redstone, Farrell, SD Ireland etc, where they charge upwards of $2000 per month for 1 bedroom and $2400 a month for 2 bedrooms. What did our mayor say? “That sounds to me like the early stages of a market reconciling, kind of recalibrating to deal with the fact that there’s substantial amounts of new supply.” A market for the elite few, sure.

Quote 6:

“One big question is whether the changing marketplace will lead owner-occupants to reclaim some of the houses that were converted to student rentals decades ago.”

Very few current residents in Burlington could afford to buy a dilapidated $400,000 single family home and then spend another $200,000 to bring it back to life. This idea exists outside reality. If you look on local real estate sites, most houses near UVM are sold as investment properties, inflating the sale price immensely.

UVM and Champlain On-Campus Housing Prices are Hurting the Rental Market

When I ran for city council last year and was looking into our local housing market, I was blown away by how Burlington’s housing market doesn’t function like a typical supply/demand market. There are many reasons why this is the case, (I’ll save it for a different post) but the biggest reason that housing in Burlington is so dysfunctional is that UVM and Champlain College run a closed-housing market conglomerate, free of property taxes that most landlords have to face, and they get to rent to a captive audience, who must pay whatever UVM asks them to pay (within ‘reason’).

UVM owns or leases 5700 beds (it is unclear how many bedrooms that is, if it includes privately-owned Redstone housing, but even if we assume the university averages 2 students per bedroom, that’s still 2,850 bedrooms), while Champlain College owns around 1800-1900 beds. To compare, Champlain Housing Trust, the next largest landlord, owns only about half that number, at nearly 1300 bedrooms, while Bissonnette, the largest private landlord by number of beds (until Farrell’s Burlington College mega-project is built), owns nearly 550 beds.

If you attend UVM or Champlain, you are required (with exceptions) to live on campus and are required to pay on-campus housing costs. When one considers the cost of living on campus, and how students are really only in the dorms for 7 months out of the year, it’s clear that on-campus housing is highway robbery, and anything off campus is a comparative steal.

Obscenely inflated housing costs affect more than just on-campus students – it affects the rest of the housing market for other renters as well. As students move off campus, or atleast out of student dorms, they no longer have to pay anywhere from $750 a month to share a quad with 3 other adults, $1,000 to share a double, and up to $1400 a month for a single room with a private bath and shared common area facilities. Even campus-sponsored private-housing is expensive – Redstone Lofts are $950 per month per bedroom, Redstone Apartments are a bit cheaper starting at $700 per month per bedroom, while Eagles Landing will run from $925 per month per bedroom up to $1300 per month for a studio.

It’s even crazier when you consider that universities and student housing, including Eagles Landing (194 Saint Paul Street) don’t abide by inclusionary zoning requirements. One would hope that the inclusionary zoning working group would work on this issue – with one meeting left, they have not yet.