In early September Mayor Weinberger will have a second public meeting to discuss what housing policies the city will focus on over the next two years. However, whatever comes out of that meeting will be entirely useless, as everything has been decided by housing interests, business interests, and government insiders, many of whom don’t even live in Burlington. The winners will be those with wealth and real estate, while the losers will be low-wage service/retail workers and renters, the ignored backbone of Burlington’s college and tourist economy.
I’ll let the data do some of the speaking for me.
The biggest shocker is how unrepresentative the backgrounds of those who attended the housing summit were. Over 70% of attendees were there for work; they represented for-profit and non-profit housing organizations, business groups, local government employees, and those in finance/law. The majority of ‘stakeholders’ of this housing summit weren’t Burlington renters, weren’t service workers, but were folks who had to be there for work or had a direct financial stake in the final result.
Mayor Weinberger will tell you that the Housing Summit was an inclusive process which will help all residents, especially low-income and marginalized residents. Don’t believe the bullshit and spin, as few of those folks were included in the process – it was another sham process with a predetermined outcome, one which continues to enrich the wealthy area residents while disenfranchising low-income residents.
Last post I discussed how 25% of single and double-unit homes in Burlington are investment rental properties, making it harder for lower-income people to live and thrive in Burlington. While I mentioned that zoning plays a role in this, albeit a limited one, today I wanted to show how those with money and wealth, including Mayor Weinberger, are the ultimate NIMBYs, working to make sure that there are limited opportunities for new or different residents to move into their neighborhoods, while aggressively pushing denser development in other neighborhoods.
I have mapped all 670+ single-family mansions and luxury condos worth over $500,000*. Of these 670 homes, 120 (18%) are second homes. These homes make up the top 10% wealthiest single-unit homes in the city, making them the wealthiest 4% (by home value) residents in the city. Combined wealth is $465 million.
If we decided to create a luxury housing/mansion tax in the city on these homes, depending on our pricing scheme, which I will write about in a later post, (yearly flat home value tax of .1% (one tenth of one percent), flat tax of .5% (half of one percent), we could be raising anywhere from $500,000 to $2,500,000 A YEAR for low-income housing, which is a helluva lot more than we are doing now as a city.
What you will quickly notice is that the vast majority of wealthy homes, 94%, exist in only 4 spaces throughout the city. They are either in the south end on the hill section with nice lake views (Tracts 39-1 and 39-2), in the south end by the water (Tracts 10-2, and 11-2 ), downtown in luxury condos(Tract 10-1 ) or in the New North End by the water (Tract 2-3 without Rockpoint). These areas have some of the lowest population densities in the city, and if we tracked population by street or neighborhood I’m certain these numbers would be even lower.
Except for the luxury condos downtown, almost every mansion/luxury condo was built in areas that are zoned for low-residential density. In fact, our own Mayor Weinberger, a strong proponent of ‘in-fill’ development and ‘denser development by building up’ lives in one of these mansions on the hill, where he is protected by zoning from every worrying about losing his perfect lake view, from ever worrying about traffic, noise, pollution, trash, or any of the other issues that come with actual city living.
The ultimate NIMBYs aren’t small homeowners or renters concerned about the negative effects of gentrification, but rather the wealthiest 10% of homeowners who live in low-density neighborhoods, and who regularly vote for and advocate for, zoning that keeps their neighborhoods with few people and large homes, while pushing density to poorer neighborhoods that are already quite dense, like the Old North End.
*For data purposes, I included all housing that either had a recent sale price of over $500,000 or a home assessed at over $450,000 (homes are generally assessed at less than 90% of value).
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.
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.
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.
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?