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.

Does Vermont Weatherization Program Hurt Low Income Renters?

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.