Is Burlington a welcoming place for everyone?

I ask this not as a thought exercise, or as a way to shame the many hard working folks who do the daily work of social and economic justice in our city, folks who regularly self-reflect on their own privilege and power, but rather as a serious question. Is Burlington welcoming to you? Is it welcoming to those who don’t look or act like you?

I would say, based on interviews with tenants who rented from slumlord Rick Bove, based on the many votes made by our city council and mayor the past 6 years, that Burlington is not a welcoming place for those on the political and economic margins, that Burlington is not a welcoming place to those who neither look nor act like me. It’s not welcoming to people of color, to anyone who is low-income, who is differently-bodied, who is gender nonconforming, and so so many other folks whose voices are regularly ignored or silenced in our city. I wrote this for the folks who do feel welcomed in Burlington.

Burlington is a city that will tell you they believe in economic justice, like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, lessening the gender and racial pay gap for those who need it most, but then won’t do a single thing to actually raise the economic wellbeing of low-wage workers. Burlington is a city that will say they believe in racial justice, that Black Lives Matter, and yet will support a city council, mayor, and police chief who don’t believe we need civilian oversight of our police officers. Burlington will rally 1,000 strong when Donald Trump comes trolling to town, but when our own police officers kill a man in the New North End in cold blood, when witnesses directly contradict the officers’ testimonies, no one makes a peep. Burlington is a city that will brag about how they help everyone find safe and affordable housing, but will then turn a blind eye to gross housing injustices, a blind eye to slumlords who’s daily crimes cause great suffering to people of color and low income families, women, and the intersectionality of all these folks and others.

People often call me either an idealist or a pessimist, but I am neither. I am a realist who sees the daily injustices in our community and hopes for a more just future, while also recognizing that our city is all too comfortable with the status quo. I see how our elected officials, well-meaning and very privileged, have no clue what it’s like to feel marginalized and powerless in our own community, how they have little trouble saying that Burlington is a great place for everyone to live because they themselves, along with their friends and relatives, do not struggle to regularly feel safe in Burlington, do not struggle to feel economically secure, do not struggle to feel heard.

Burlington, however, is both idealistic and pessimistic. It is full of idealists who on the one hand believe naively, that, if they speak truths out-loud, about their power and privilege, that they are not only absolved of their own complicitness in a grossly inequitable, unjust system, but that their words are just as meaningful and impactful as action. Burlington, on the other hand, is full of pessimists who are so distrustful of their own less fortunate neighbors that they refuse to share meaningful power with them. Instead, they convince themselves that any progress, no matter how small or comforting in its incrementalism, since it does not challenge their own position and power in the community, is better than no progress. But progress within the status quo will not make people’s lives tangentially better, because the progress is for those in power, not for those who suffer.

I would say that it is a matter of time before this city scares off the next generation of folks who would continue Burlington’s tradition as a tolerant, progressive city, but that would be idealistic. In reality, many of those folks have already been scared away, and I have no doubt if we continue to vote to keep the status quo like we did last night, the rest will soon follow.

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.

Why is Councilor Roof on the Vehicle for Hire Board?

One of the symptoms of atrophying boards and commissions is that it is sometimes very difficult to fill commission spots with new faces. Whenever I talk to less political friends, they have no idea what commissions do or how to apply to be on one, and the Vehicle for Hire Board is a symptom of the same general groups of people applying for commissions and boards, especially when no one else knows about it. A couple things stand out.

  • Councilor Roof, who is an elected city official, is on the board. I don’t know if this has happened many times in the past, but it’s certainly a rare instance that blurs the line between citizen boards and elected officials. Since the other councilors vote on most Board candidates, this certainly feels like it could easily open up a conflict of interest.
  • Two members of the Vehicle for Hire Board are also on the Airport Commission. Wouldn’t city councilors want to ensure power and influence isn’t concentrated, even in the hands of individual citizens? And does this create a conflict, if those commissioner put the needs of the airport over the needs of cab drivers?

 

Vehicle for Hire Board

Member Ward Term Email
Dennis Duffy 7/2018
Charles Herrick 7/2018
William Keogh Sr. 5 7/2019
Jeffrey Munger 1 7/2019
Adam Roof 8 7/2018

 

Airport Commission

Member Ward Term Email
William Keogh Sr. 5 7/2018
Jeffrey Munger 1 7/2020
Alan Newman 7 7/2018
Pat Nowak 7/2018
Jeffrey L. Schulman 5 7/2019

Our citizen boards falter and lose credibility when we don’t put enough resources to help publicize to folks outside of the political establishment. We need a group of councilors committed to funding outreach to help include marginalized folks in government, especially for Councilor Roof’s Ward 8, since there are so few commissioners from his ward.

Updated: Why Are Developers and Housing Insiders Deciding Our Inclusionary Zoning Policy?

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,
  • Erik Hoekstra, Redstone developer (and small personal landlord), who wants to gut inclusionary zoning,
  • 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,
  • John Davis, Housing developer consultant with Councilor Knodell and Monte,
  • 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?

  • Renters
  • 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.)

Why is ‘Affordable Housing’ Often Not Affordable?

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.

Vermont Legal Aid recently came out with a really good report titled The Cost of Substandard Housing:

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?

Are Poor Families and Children Being Priced Out of Burlington?

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.

All data can be found here.

Bissonette and Legal Mass-Evictions

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.

The Other Side of Gentrification – A Tale of Two Burlingtons

Last month Seven Days wrote an article about gentrification in Burlington’s Old North End, where expensive new housing was built, and new restaurants popped up. Yet there’s another side of gentrification that is rarely discussed – the loss of affordable services along with the upscaling of previously affordable housing – and I believe that this part of gentrification is what really ends up pushing low income folks out of Burlington.

A Lack of Affordable Retail and Household Goods

The Old North End and Downtown areas no longer have any places to buy affordable used furniture. Myers closed in 2015, Salvation Army closed in 2016, and now Resource will be downsizing. While they will be selling home goods out of their location across the street, it’s hard to believe they will be able to carry the same number of home goods compared to in their current location. What options do low-income families have left in Burlington, especially if they cannot afford a car, to buy affordable furniture and clothing?  Will folks just shop at the city’s only Rent-A-Center, which is located in the poorest part of town, a business with a history of predatory business practices?

A Lack of Affordable Restaurants and Closure of the One Bottle Redemption Center

That’s not all. The one affordable restaurant in the Old North End (and all of Burlington, really), QTee’s, was bought by Redstone and converted into pricey apartments, while a pricier restaurant, Butch and Babes, moved in to the Redstone apartment building across the street. The one bottle redemption center within walking distance of downtown? Bought by Redstone and is now being converted into a restaurant.

A Lack of Affordable Housing

The Bisonnettes recently converted all 306 units of housing they own, the vast majority located in the Old North End, totaling 546 bedrooms, from affordable housing (especially for those with section 8 vouchers) to housing for young professionals. While Bright Street Coop added several dozen affordable apartments, this loss is having a huge effect on low income families in the area. This lack of housing was an argument used by several city councilors to justify selling city property to known slumlords.

How are folks living Downtown and in the Old North End supposed to enjoy the many benefits Burlington has to offer if they are being priced out of their neighborhoods? And what is happening to all these folks being priced out of Burlington?

 

Updated: Burlington City Employee Union Opposes Mayor Weinberger

Post title updated to reflect that a large portion of city employees are not unionized, and to reflect that many union members are saying that membership never took a vote. What at first looked like a huge win for Carina seems to be blowing back pretty hard, especially when several other city unions had already endorsed Miro.

What does it mean when the Burlington city employees’ union, the folks who carry out this administration’s decisions, unanimously oppose the current mayor? It’s certainly not a vote of confidence, and seems to highlight some real friction in Burlington right now.

Are Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative? Part 3 of 3

Update: I included the average and median home value of commissioners (priced to current value) compared to citywide median and average.

(If you did not get the chance to read part 1, I mapped out last year’s commissioner data to show what areas of the city commissioners come from, and in part 2 I looked at a ton of data around commissions, including housing type, housing value, profession, and gender.)

Today, I’d like to look at our boards and commissions over a series of 10 years to see if there is a correlation between Progressive and Democratic Mayors and commission representation. Using data from the 2005-06, 2011-2012, and 2016-17 years, I was able to compare commissions from the end of Mayor Clavelle’s tenure, the end of Mayor Kiss’s tenure, and 6 years into Mayor Weinberger’s tenure. Interesting data points are below.

Commissioners are more often homeowners and their houses are on average significantly wealthier, 16%-24% higher, than the city average. (Home values shown are the assessed value of said housing, which is about 85% of the full value.)

Commissioners by ward seem to be all over the place, but a few trends emerge. Wards 2 and 8, Old North End and Downtown, are chronically under-represented, while Wards 5 and 6, the South End, seem to generally have more representation than what one would expect to see, 11% representation if all wards were represented equally.

It seems that while there was a small dip during the Kiss years in regards to more economically diverse commissions, commissions are slowly climbing back up to the lack of diversity from 2006. Trends still favor relatively wealthier citizens in business and housing fields, with a decent increase in representation by the medical community. Interestingly, commissioners who may make less money, such as government workers and those working in the community/social work/education fields, seem to have lost the most ground since 2012.

While gender disparity decreased slightly under the Kiss administration, it seems to have stabilized under the Miro administration, hovering around 2/3rds of all commissioners as male.

The number of low-income renting commissioners, after climbing in 2012, has been falling since. The number of home-owning commissioners has increased steadily since 2006, while coop homeowners are only occasionally on commissions, regardless of who is mayor.

Once again, we see a small dip in the number of males on the finance and development commissions in 2012, while that number returns to 2006 levels by 2017. This is a troubling trend, as 75% of finance and development commissioners are male, meaning many voices are not being included in the decisions that have the most economic impact on all of our lives.

Why do our commissions look the way they do? I believe that the commission process at every step encourages wealthier residents to apply and to be voted onto commissions, and that the system itself, while small impacts can be made, works in a way to marginalize many members of the community. New mayors and city councilors seem to make little difference in the make up of commissions. I’d like to discuss these theories more in a final post.