Charles Winkleman

Burlington Politics from the Left

Is Burlington Using Land Effectively and Efficiently?



Land-use planning has a lot to do with how Burlington is shaped, and the way our city is currently planned certainly seems to favor some over others. For instance, the way our zoning works gives priority to single-family homeowners in the new north end and south end. The way our zoning changes work give priority to the largest and wealthiest developers, for instance the spot-zoning done for Don Sinex downtown and the spot-zoning done for Eric Farrell on the old Burlington College Land. Zoning, and land use-planning, should be fair, consistent, and benefit the maximum number of residents, current and future.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Create better incentives for landowners to redevelop, and make sure these incentives are consistent.
  3. Change the zoning laws to encourage fairer, more dense development throughout the city.
  4. Stop giving out one-time zoning changes for large, single developers, especially since these properties tend to be monolithic and less attractive as neighborhoods.

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 ‘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?