A Politician’s Guide on How to Kill Burlington, Vermont

Gentrification and neoliberalism are killing Burlington, turning the city into another Seattle or San Fransisco. Low-income residents and residents of color are being pushed out of the city, high-end services and restaurants are replacing low-income-community-conscious businesses. Wealthy Old North End developers and landlords like Erik Hoekstra (Redstone, Butch and Babes), Jacob Hindsdale, and Bill Bissonnette seem very happy to be making a profit off of trauma and displacement. Wealthy residents and transplants are excited to try out every new restaurant and brewery. For the rest of us stuck struggling to pay rent, Burlington is dying.

In Burlington’s Old North End, 300 low-income households have been priced out of the neighborhood and the city. QTs has been replaced by a yoga studio and Butch and Babes. The Workers Center and Off Center for the Dramatic Arts have been evicted by Jacob Hindsdale, heir to the Hindsdale slum fortune (and partner to former State Rep Kesha Ram), replaced with an indoor ax-throwing and cocktail business, owned by the same folks who own several local Escape Rooms. Great for tourists and new wealthy residents with disposable income, terrible for most workers and renters.

Green Mountain Transit is hemorrhaging riders, which isn’t surprising when one considers that 80% of their riders are low-income or disabled and cannot afford a vehicle. Gentrification is killing our semi-public mass transit, as it has done in Los Angeles and throughout the entire country. Add our elected officials’ gross acquiescence to capitalist predators like Uber, practically begging their lobbyists to write our laws for us, and it’s clear mass transit in Vermont is suffering badly. As an example, in San Fransisco, ‘rideshares’ hurt public transit ridership by 13% since 2000, and they are slowly killing off public transit in most cities at a cumulative rate of 1% per year.

Bernie Sanders in the early 1980s, calling out developers, landlords, boutique hotels, etc, while fighting for the needs of ‘the vast majority of our population’, modest-income workers and renters. The more things change the more they are the same.

Low-income workers continue to get the short end of the stick. Wealthy Vermonters are becoming much wealthier, while everyone else finds it harder and harder to survive. Since 2010, the wealthiest Vermonters have seen a 70% increase in income, and a 40% increase just from 2016 to 2017. Older, low-income Vermonters are being priced and forced out of the state, while wealthier and younger, very economically privileged millenials making over $100,000 a year, are moving in. At the same time, when factoring in inflation, Vermont’s minimum wage hasn’t increased since the 1980s. These children of wealthy elites are displacing long-term communities, destroying the social fabric of our city.

Mayor Weinberger trusts that the market, aka a handful of wealthy elites, which has already displaced so many lives, will solve all our problems. A developer and devout ideological capitalist, Weinberger believes that by building ‘market-rate’ housing, housing that is often actually luxury housing for the vast majority of renters, we can ‘solve’ our housing crises. However, studies shows that for every 100 upper-class residents that move into a community, the community needs to build 25-43 more units of housing for low-income workers. That means that without rent regulation, even with inclusionary zoning, every new market-rate building actually makes the housing situation for low-income renters much worse. Those who support the non-profit-industrial-complex’s Building Homes Together Campaign should be aware that their program, which continues to fall far short of their own modest goals, does more harm than good.

Low Income Rental Units Disappeared

According to a new report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University (for any Ivy League neoliberal technocrats listening), since 1990 nearly 11,000 units of ‘naturally affordable housing’ for low-income renters have disappeared from Vermont, while another 15,000 new units of housing for higher-income renters have been created. In Burlington, that number roughly equates to losing 1400 low-income units, affordable for a family of 4 in extreme poverty, (making less than 30% Area Median Income), while 1,000 moderate-income units and 2,000 higher-income units have entered the market.

One set of data from CEDO’s 2013 and 2018 Consolidated Housing Plan show how in just a 5-year span neoliberalism and gentrification have hurt low-income tenants in Burlington. It is likely that many of the folks making 50-80% AMI have fallen to 30% AMI, swelling the number of extremely low-income renters another 2,300 households and greatly increasing the already dire need for low-income housing.

Data from CEDO

On top of this, over 430 more low-income households (who have not yet been gentrified out of the city) are rent burdened; likely folks who fell out of the slightly higher income bracket and have fallen even further down the economic ladder.

Rents Increase, Landlords Profit

Data shows that Burlington’s average rents have increased on top of inflation by an additional 28% since 2000. This money is pure profit for landlords, especially the larger ones who have owned property for several decades. This isn’t surprising – while landlords often argue that rent increases are to cover maintenance costs, the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board has shown that less than 10% of rent increases went back to the community through reinvestment and taxes; 70% of those increases went into the pockets of landlords as pure profit, on top of their housing wealth.

https://www.housingdata.org/profile/rental-housing-costs/median-gross-rent

When we look at median gross rent in Burlington compared to rental costs in 2009, we see that in even in just the 8 years from 2009-2017, rents have increased 10% higher than inflation.

As you can see, even as more luxury rental units have been built, low-income housing hasn’t kept close to pace, and the percentage of rental housing that is affordable to low-income renters and workers continues to fall drastically, most likely when it comes to 1 and 2 bedroom units.

There are ways to make Burlington a place for everyone to live and thrive. However, if politicians continue with status quo politics, the type of politics that favor wealthy real estate interests and their ‘right’ to make a profit off of a basic necessity over neighborhood stability for low-income renters, expect Burlington to die. Expect Burlington to become, as Bernie said in the 80s, another bland over-priced city with expensive housing, over-priced rentals, luxury and boutique hotels. How can we kill a city like Burlington? Keep doing what we are doing and don’t look back.

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?

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.