Recently the Vermont legislature voted to raise the tax on heating oil a modest amount to help fund the state’s weatherization program. While the tax comes from good intentions, the program in practice will be taking money from low-income renters and giving that money to low-income homeowners and wealthier, often absentee, landlords.
The weatherization program, along with the federally funded Burlington Lead Program, have similar successes and challenges. Any Vermonter making less than 80% Area Median Income (AMI) can have the state help pay to insulate their house and lower heating bills. That’s good for low-income homeowners, since most low-income Vermonters cannot afford such improvements to their housing.
However, the program also applies to renters making less than 80% AMI, and it is not clear if these improvement help low-income tenants in perpetuity. Like the state’s ‘business incentive program’, while there are quality control oversights, there are no clear benchmarks that landlords must follow, no maximum rent restrictions after they have completed the work, and it’s not clear if there is any organization keeping track of what happens to low-income renters after improvements have been made to make sure landlords don’t see them as a free investment.
Landlords get free repairs and investment in their private business from the government, upwards of $8,000 per unit, with few strings attached. On top of this, the program only requires for multi-unit buildings that 25% of tenants are low income or 50% of the units are rented at 80% AMI. Rent stabilization is required if a landlord has a lien on it, but the stabilization only lasts one year. Rent stabilization is also required if the repairs cost more than the total savings, but there is no publicly available data to know if these actually happen, how often, and how long.
While weatherization and other programs help low-income homeowners, there needs to be more oversight to ensure that wealthier landlords, especially negligent and absentee slumlords, do not get this money with few strings attached. There needs to be guarantees that landlords cannot raise rents post-weatherization or evict tenants ‘by right’. There also needs to be a mechanism to fine absentee landlords who won’t weatherize their units to the detriment of their tenants. Until then, this program, especially considering the new funding source, will likely hurt low-income renters at the expense of wealthier landlords.
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.
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.
For those who are interested in the subject of early childhood education, you may have read a recent article in Seven Days in which I was quoted. Calling someone out publicly is not something I enjoy doing – and it’s tough living in a community where often the only way for public officials to shift their perspective is to spend years trying to work with them until you’ve been ignored so badly that you feel like you have no other options.
During a conversation with some early ed folks after the article came out, I posited that a big issue with Mayor Weinberger’s early ed initiative is that there is no clear goal, if any goal at all, and it’s hard to follow someone who makes mistakes, who won’t include local experts and professionals in the process, who won’t use their political capital on an issue that they say is very important to them, especially if you don’t know what their end goal is. Add a lack of communication (except when election season rolls around), and the end goal is all the more murkier.
While organizations like the Permanent Fund have a clear goal, that of universal publicly funded early education (which leads one to question how much they support the current initiative and why), without a larger goals, these legislative victories may end up missing the mark.
Is the goal for organizations and politicians to create a single policy initiative, like universal early education, or is it a means to a larger end, that all children and their families grow up healthy, that all children born in Burlington live in safe housing, eat healthy foods, learn in school without (too many) distractions. There’s an idea in the healthcare community that food is healthcare, that housing is healthcare, since without them your health deteriorates quickly. This is an idea that our policymakers need to take to heart when it comes to children. Being in a early ed setting 8 hours a day is one part (and a large one) of what should be the end goal, making sure children live and grow up in safe and healthy environments.
Yet too often policymakers see early education as the end goal, the solution that will solve most other problems. Yet if families don’t make enough money, with a low minimum wage, to put healthy food on the table, if families cannot afford to live in safe housing since our city spends very few resources on building permanently affordable, low-income housing for families, if families with deep levels of trauma cannot afford healthcare and therapy, and instead deal with stress in harmful ways (smoking, drinking, drug use, abuse), then publicly funded early childhood education will not help the growing number of young children and families who struggle to survive in Burlington.
The goal of the mayor’s early childhood initiative, and frankly every politician in the state, should be that every child regardless of income or background can grow up in healthy and safe environments, and we should be forming our housing, economic, and education policies around this goal. While it won’t be cheap, a holistic approach can support our children from every angle and ensure our governmental policies live out to our values.
Burlington tenant laws are already strong so why would we need more?
The truth is that Burlington tenant laws may be stronger than many cities, but fall far short of helping marginalized residents (see: Fair Housing Report, VT Legal Aid Report), especially when little money is allocated towards enforcement. There are numerous ways to evict tenants, including not renewing their lease, jacking the rent up at the end of a lease, or upgrading all the units and charging a lot more thereby displacing low income residents like Bissonette. On top of this, while it is illegal to discriminate due to housing, it’s nearly impossible to prove, and because Burlington is an ‘at will’ renting community, landlords can evict you for any little reason as long as it’s not obviously discriminatory. The truth is that the current policies and laws are not helping in their intended way.
Can’t we build our way out of this problem? Isn’t it an issue of supply and demand?
Which problem? The problem of housing costing too much? Building more market housing will only lower costs on the high end of the market, since most new market-rate housing is too expensive for most renters. If you’re a renter in Burlington, odds are your rent is so unaffordable that even with the top of the market dropping, it won’t affect your own rent. Higher wages would be one way to mitigate this, but rent protections and limits would be best to keep landlords from gouging. On top of this, as long as we have two huge colleges with over 5,000 renters and they charge $1800 a month for 2 students to share a bedroom, even supply and demand won’t effect the market in a typical way.
Doesn’t inclusionary zoning help our housing crunch?
Not really. Inclusionary zoning (IZ), the idea that a certain percentage (15%-20% in Burlington) of new housing should be affordable so that a few lucky families can economically integrate, is a nicer version of trickle-down housing, particularly since our city and state are not putting serious money behind new affordable housing construction. Also, inclusionary zoning rental prices are based on area median income, which is likely 50% higher than Burlington’s renter median income – so even if you are making a ‘livable wage’, you likely cannot afford even inclusionary zoning rental prices.
For-profit developers, particularly Erik Hoekstra of Redstone, would like you to believe that IZ slows overall development in the city, because inclusionary zoning does hurt their bottom line. The truth is that numerous studies have shown that inclusionary zoning marginally affects single family home prices (by 1%), while there are minimal drawbacks to inclusionary zoning. Bigger issues for developers include the inflationary increase in land value and cost, and zoning in the city, which bans dense development throughout the south end, the new north end, and parts of the hill section. Finding a way to limit this land inflation would help developers, renters, and folks who would like to buy in Burlington but cannot afford to.
If we build more new housing, low income people can move into the older housing, right?
In theory, if the older housing is affordable, then yes. In practice, since so many people in the Burlington area make below livable wages, there will always be competition for older housing between low income residents and recent college graduates. Also, if we take that logic elsewhere, it ends up being very problematic. If we build new schools or hospitals, if we grow better food, etc, then low income people can take the cheaper and lower-quality versions, right? Everyone deserves good housing, and just because you work in a job that underpays doesn’t mean you should have to fight over wealthier folks’ crumbs.
Won’t new market-rate buildings in neighborhoods help relieve housing pressure in those neighborhoods?
As usual, in theory, yes, it should help. In practice, when new housing goes into a new neighborhood without rent limits or protections, the rental prices of surrounding properties creep upwards. Not to mention that as new, pricier housing is built, prices everywhere creep up, while new, fancier restaurants and corner stores open, pricing out the low-income families that are able to stick it out. No one wants to live in a community where all the businesses are geared towards a different class than them.
I’m a YIMBY, Yes In My Back Yard, unlike you, who is a NIMBY, No In My Back Yard.
Let me ask you a question – would you be okay with a 5 story building, with 100 new people, moving in right next door, and all the construction and noise that will come with it? Are you willing to go to your elected officials and city hall and demand zoning changes that allow for dense, market rate housing to be built everywhere in the city, even in your literal backyard? If so, great, you are one of the few YIMBYs! I hope you will also fight for greater public investment in low-income housing.
We have already built low income housing, so why do we need more?
It’s true that Burlington has more affordable housing than any other community. Yet there is such a strong need for housing for those who make so little money, and the current plan to ensure 20% of the next 3,500 units of housing to be affordable falls far short of what is needed. Imagine a pyramid of need, and then flip the pyramid and make that second pyramid one of development. We need to align new development with those who need it.
The 2015 housing needs assessment doesn’t parse out housing data, and therefore makes it an incredibly difficult document to use as a road map. While it talks in broad strokes about housing in the community, we have no idea what % of low income residents pay more than 50% of their income to rent, from this document we do not know who needs housing the most (severely low income residents). We all believe we need more housing. But if we don’t know who needs what type of housing, which income groups and household types we should be targeting, then most of the new 1 and 2 bedroom housing will not meet the needs of the community. It’s like being asked to build a bike, deciding to build a mountain bike, then finding out that your client wanted a road bike with attachments for multiple children. And you never asked.
We have a low income Housing Trust Fund which the mayor and council doubled – that’s a really good start, right?
After 6 years in office, this administration and council have committed $160,000 more a year to affordable housing, for a total of $310,000. That will buy 1-2 units of housing a year, total. When one considers how many resources are devoted to solving parking downtown, or the mall redevelopment, it’s hard to feel like elected officials are interested in investing public funds for low income housing.
Don’t we already have housing vouchers? Isn’t that enough public support?
With federal dollars, we do have housing vouchers through BHA. Unfortunately these vouchers, which give residents ‘choice’, have failed in their original mission. Not only is the wait for a voucher around 10 years long, but often these vouchers don’t come close to covering 70% of market rate rent. On top of this, while proponents claim that vouchers give families more living flexibility, the truth is that so few apartments are affordable that their options are severely limited. Vouchers are an unsustainable way to give federal money to a handful of landlords, often slumlords, who at any time can (and do!) upgrade their units and kick out their low-income tenants who can no longer afford higher rents. A better use of funds would be to support permanent, affordable housing.
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.
“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.
“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.
“”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.
“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…
“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.
“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.
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.
One thing that bothered me during the debate around the mall redevelopment, particularly changing the zoning downtown, was the argument that all density is automatically good for all of Burlington’s residents. For the most part, the folks arguing passionately for more density, those who self-described as YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard) seemed to be okay with density as long as it wasn’t right next to them, in essence contradicting their own argument.
Dense living has it’s benefits and its drawbacks, there’s no question about it. And if we want to push for policies that encourage density, we need to be honest about the good and bad, and ensure that both good and bad are spread fairly throughout the city. Unfortunately, based on current zoning, this is not the case. Areas of the city with high rates of home ownership, along with higher rates of household income, are the least dense parts of the city.
It’s tough to see that even members of the Inclusionary Zoning Working Group seem to be okay with these different zoning schemes (including David White, Brian Pine, and Nancy Owens), even though the data below suggests that different zoning could alleviate some of our housing crisis. To his credit, John Davis advocated for more regular zoning throughout the city, arguing that these policies hurt development and inclusionary zoning.
John Davis is on to a really important point. Since 1990, of the 57 projects that included inclusionary zoning units, 44 occurred downtown or in the old north end. So while 77% of all projects with mixed-income housing occurred in the densest part of the city, only 23% occurred in the sections of the city with the highest levels of home-ownership, with a measly 5% in the south end.
Looking at a random example, I believe that land costs are not drastically different between the south end, new north end, and old north end, and in fact costs are so low in some parts of the new north end that new, more dense development could occur there for quite some time in to the future. Take a comparison of three random properties.
Old North End: 209 North Winooski Ave, land is assessed at $112,700 on a 8,168 square foot lot, or $13.79 per square foot.
South End: 273 South Prospect Street, land is assessed at $213,400 on a 14,800 square foot lot, or $14.42 per square foot
New North End: 42 Venus Ave, land is assessed at $70,800 on a 8,890 square foot lot, or $7.96 per square foot.
If we are going to be a dense city, a livable and walkable city, we should expect that every part of the city should be zoned for dense living. By changing our zoning we can set an example for surrounding communities, that we expect all residents to share in the benefits and drawbacks of city living, regardless of whether they are renters or homeowners, business owners or business workers. Until then, we will continue to be a city divided, a city where some folks, those who tend to have more money or have lived in the city for decades, have a drastically different experience than newer, or poorer, residents.