Burlington Needs a Wealth Tax

With Mayor Weinberger putting on a housing summit next month, now is the time to advocate for bold, meaningful policies that redistribute wealth in a way to ensure that nobody has to live unwalled. A wealth tax on millionaires will raise $7.5 million a year for low-income housing projects throughout the city.

Burlington has over 400 for-profit, private, millionaires who own a combined $1.5 billion in property wealth, more than the combined wealth of UVM and the UVM Medical Center. Not only are these 1%ers’ property often taxed at assessed rates much less than their value, but taxing their wealth would help pay for desperately needed low-income housing, without negatively affecting the vast majority of Burlington workers and residents.

Every Burlington Millionaire by Land Wealth – (Click to Enlarge)

The current Housing Trust Fund, funded to the tune of a measly $520,000 a year, can outright fund the construction of only 2 low-income units every year, yet the city needs to build over 5,000 homes for low and moderate-income residents (making less than 80% of the Area Median Income – AMI) to meet our city’s housing needs, yet only 170 homes for those making over 80% AMI. In fact, 2,900 low-income households are paying more than 50% of their income in housing. (Can be found on the city’s Consolidated Housing Plan draft, Page 10.)

Unfortunately, Mayor Weinberger and the City Council seem to think market rate housing, which is affordable to those making 100% AMI, will somehow solve the 5,000 units of low-income housing that these folks need. According to the same Consolidated Housing Plan, 170 folks making between 80%-100% AMI are paying 30% or more on rent, while 0 are paying 50% of their income or more.

If we taxed these millionaires at an additional one half of one percent, .5% every year, the city could raise an additional $7.6 million dollars a year for low-income housing. According to the city’s recent Inclusionary Zoning report, this money could fully fund and build an additional 30 units of truly low-income housing every year. With loans, financing, and low-income tax credits, that number increases even more. As an example, Redstone’s building at 258 North Winooski Ave, with 23 units and 41 bedrooms, along with first-floor retail space, cost roughly $3.5 million dollars. Even with overhead and maintenance, likely 50+ units of permanently and truly affordable low-income housing could be built every year in Burlington, 25x more than is currently built.

Even if we decided to be cheap, and only tax these 400 millionaires at one tenth of one percent, or .1%, we could still raise $1,500,000 a year for housing, 3x more than our Mayor and Council have dedicated to housing over this last decade.

In conclusion: Tax the wealth of the wealthiest 1% of landowners so that everyone can have safe, affordable housing. It’s easy and would actually put some money where our values supposedly are.

Most Church Street ‘small’ Business Owners Do Not Live in Burlington

This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1, 3, 4, are here.

It turns out that while the city is comfortable handing over more power to a body of business owners, 75% of whom live outside the city, they are uncomfortable giving noncitizen residents, and communities affected by the Burlington Airport, a meaningful voice in our politics.

*Post Updated to reflect more accurate numbers of 75% of Church Street Business owners live outside Burlington and roughly 1 out of 4 live in Burlington.*

Another argument that folks who support Burlington’s Downtown Privatization District have made is that most of the ‘small’ business owners on Church Street are local. (How are we defining small? Does Lake Champlain Chocolates count? If we go by federal definitions, businesses with 480 employees count as small…when we don’t define our terms it’s tougher to have honest conversations, which is likely the point of the rushing the privatization plan in the first place. And more importantly, even if our elected officials don’t care as long as their agenda passes, we lose trust in our local government.)

But what does local mean, particularly in the context of democratic government institutions, and why is Mayor Weinberger and most Burlington Councilors excited to give power to certain folks who cannot legally vote in the city while denying said power to others?

First, we need some graphs for context!

(All data was gleaned from Secretary of State Website, Burlington Property Database, or from the Church Street Marketplace Website, so some newer businesses may not have been included on this list. Happy to share data with anyone who asks.)

As we can see, although rents are making it difficult for non-boutique small businesses to compete on Church Street, only about 1 out of every 4 Church Street businesses is corporate/franchise owned. Seems pretty damn good, right?

Here’s where things become a bit trickier:

Of the 62 small businesses on Church Street, only 17, or 28%, of the owners live in Burlington – only 1 out of every 4 businesses on Church Street are owned by a Burlington resident. It seems that Church Street is less of an economic opportunity for Burlington residents/small business owners and more of an economic engine for those who live outside the city.

Burlington Church Street Business Owner Home value vs the citywide median.

On top of this, most of those local business owners are also homeowners, and they tend to have 40-65% more homeowner wealth than the typical Burlington homeowner (numbers on the city website are often only 80-85% of true value), putting local Church Street business owners in the top 20ish% wealthiest of all residents. This is not to mention Church Street landlords (a blog post for another day). With businesses reaping 20% profits since 2008, owners have taken all of the pie while leaving downtown workers in the dust.

Burlington Business owners already have lots of influence in the community, so it’s tough to understand why they’re grabbing for more. There’s the Burlington Business Association which has been given enormous latitude, even with obvious conflicts of interest, over city projects, and there’s the Church Street Marketplace Commission, where 4 out of 9 members must be business owners who can live outside of Burlington.

So why are we handing more power over to these business owners, when 1) the Mayor and many Council Democrats were skeptical of even allowing non-citizen residents to vote several years ago and 2) the Mayor has made it clear he would not share power with the citizens of communities, like Winooski and South Burlington, who have seen serious negative effects by the Burlington Airport? Why is it okay to give power away to a handful of business owners but not to majority-locally elected democratic councils and governments?

And lastly, if the city gave a damn about workers and marginalized populations, why wouldn’t they be making sure that most of the seats of this new privatized downtown district went not to those with power and wealth, but to those who continue to be left behind in Burlington’s steady economy?

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.

Are Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative? Part 2 of 3

Today I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the data that I first presented in part 1. To ensure that the sample sizes were large enough, and not just the aberration of small commissions, I chose to look only at the commissions with at least 4 members.  You may be surprised by what the data reveals, I know I was.

I want to offer a few caveats – I made assumptions about folks’ genders based on their first names. While it’s certainly not 100% accurate nor good practice, the city does not seem to collect any data on gender or race when it comes to commissioners, so I worked with what I got. I also did my best to ensure that no identifying data would be presented, even though all of this information is public in one place or another.

By Ward

  • Ward 2, 3, and the gerrymandered student Ward 8 have the lowest number of commissioners, while Ward 1, 4, and 5 have the highest.
  • Ward 2 and 3 are represented on less than 50% of all commissions, while Ward 8 has barely any representation. Wards 4 and 5 are represented on 3/4ths of all commissions.
  • There are more commissioners living outside Burlington than from half the city’s individual wards, Wards 2,3,7, and 8.Note: Ward 0 denotes commissioners who live outside Burlington.


By Gender:

  • Burlington’s gender demographics are 51% female to 49% male, yet 34% of commissioners are female and 66% are male.
  • While 65% of commissions have more males than females, only 35% of commissions have more females than males.
  • The commissions involving business, development, financials, and housing skew heavily towards males, with over 80%.
  • Housing Board of Review, Design Review Board, and Retirement Board have combined 19 males on the boards and 0 females.

When we look at the commissions involving finances and development, the disparities are even starker:


By Home Owners and Renters:

  • Although 60% of Burlington residents are renters, only 14% of commissioners are renters.
  • Nearly as many commissioners live outside the city than are renters in the city.
  • Burlington’s median assessed value of a single family home is $234,200. 75% of home-owning commissioners, or 65% of all commissioners, own homes valued about the city median.
  • Every commission had a higher average home value than the median.
  • While 100% of commissions have homeowner representation, only 40% have renter representation, and only 25% have very low income renter representation of any kind.
  • 30% of commissions have representation from outside Burlington.
  • While 100% of commissions have more than 3 home owners, only 5% of commissions have more than 3 renters.

 


By Profession:

  • Overwhelmingly, over 44% (Business/Real) of commissioners work in the fields of law, housing, development, business, and finance. These are jobs that tend to pay much more than a livable wage.
  • Nearly 10% (Community/Social) of commissioners work in education, social work, community mental health, politics, or community organizing.
  • 1 student (UVM) was on any commissions, and they were a graduate student. No undergraduate students, who number over 12,000, have any representation on any boards or commissions.
  • 11.4% (Government) of commissioners work for either the city or state.

Note: One person worked in UVM real estate, and others worked as real estate and/or business lawyers. They were counted in all applicable groups.

Town Meeting Day Brings A Toothless Housing Ballot Item

Last March, as cofounder of Fight for 15 Burlington, I helped city councilors put a nonbinding question on the ballot. At the time, I was incredibly proud – being able to affect such change, to help bring a better living standard to so many of my friends, coworkers, and neighbors. I was told that while the ballot question was incredibly vague and had no enforcement, it would help move the conversation forward on the state level.

Those arguments sounded good – and nearly every councilor voted for it, except the Republican and Republican/Democrat. It helped not only the progressive (small p) city councilors running for election and reelection, but even some of the Democratic councilors. And why not support it? No one had to make any concrete plans or promises, they didn’t have to take any political risks. Even Mayor Weinberger, although at first opposed, eventually came around to supporting the ballot item, likely because he also recognized how toothless and free of political risk the question was.

As the months went by, I thought that even though the ballot item was nonbinding, since it was supported by 75% of voters that Progressive councilors and Councilor Shannon (a vocal booster of the question) would recognize that there were concrete steps they could take in the following months while waiting for the state to raise the minimum wage. They could have expanded the livable wage ordinance, got rid of all the exemptions, could have taxed businesses over a certain size that don’t pay a livable wage, or at the very least had a public conversation about this on the local level. What did those councilors end up doing? Nothing.

In retrospect, while I felt embarrassed to have my name associated with pointless feelgood measures, it was an important learning lesson. When a ballot item or ordinance is supported by a majority of councilors, especially when supported by councilors who tend to be fairly fiscally or socially conservative, that is a good sign that the bill has no purpose, no teeth, and is really just meant for local politicians to look good without having to take any political risks.

So is the case with the new housing ballot item, and it may be no coincidence that just like the $15 ballot item, Councilor Knodell was the one to introduce it.

“Shall the voters of the city of Burlington in order to help the city’s nonprofit housing organizations build more affordable housing throughout the city, advise the city council to identify and adopt progressive local option revenues, the proceeds of which shall be used exclusively to benefit the city’s housing trust fund?”

During Monday’s council meeting, the question was changed to strike the specific tax language in lieu of the looser “local option revenues.” It passed on a vote of 9-3, with Councilors Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, Dave Hartnett, I-North District, and Joan Shannon, D-South District, opposed.”

The only way I can see this ballot item having merit is if those who voted in favor of it promise, if citizens support it, to follow through. I’d love to be made wrong on this one.