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 QTs has been replaced by a yoga studio and Butch and Babes.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.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) offers False and Flimsy Promises

The city of Burlington loves Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) – whether it be for the Moran Plant, waterfront improvements, the mall redevelopment, or the nontransparent private marina process – even though TIFs are seriously flawed. TIFs are sold on flimsy and false promises – from helping low income communities to boosting the economy when it wouldn’t have been boosted otherwise. On top of this, TIFs in practice are undemocratic. Politicians will ask voters to approve a supposed done deal but they often amount to a blank check finalized behind closed doors by a select few. It’s time to end TIFs and invest public funds in low-income communities.

TIFs are districts where cities can ‘leverage’ private investment by borrowing on future property value increases. While there may be some benefits, those benefits are unproven and do not outweigh the many many downsides to TIFs.

The 6 problems with TIFs:

  1. Once you vote on the idea, you don’t get to choose the final product even if the final product is drastically different than the initial idea. See: private marina, mall redevelopment, City Hall Park.
  2. Since the goal line on TIF projects always changes, it’s impossible to hold elected officials responsible for failing to act on their words. For example, first the $20 million mall TIF would buy a couple streets and fix streets around the mall, but in the final weeks before the vote it included fixing an additional two streets to get voters to approve it.
  3. While TIF money may have originally been used to help struggling downtowns, it is now used in mainly wealthy downtowns to improve infrastructure for wealthy land owners. For example, the mall is owned by a multi-billion dollar investment company but supposedly wouldn’t build this project unless taxpayers gave them 9% of their funding costs for free. TIF money never seems to be used for programs to support those in poverty, like funding new low-income housing.
  4. TIFs hurts our public schools by taking desperately-needed millions out of the education fund for 20+ years, as TIFs money is split 75/25 education fund and general fund. The money used to improve our downtown never reaches Burlington’s low income children.
  5. TIFs raise rents and cost of living for everyone else by accelerating property values in urban areas past typical levels of inflation. They, like Downtown Improvement Districts, lead to accelerated gentrification.
  6. TIFs are sold as being integral to spurring new development, but are based on a false and unproven assumption that the development wouldn’t have occurred ‘but for’ TIF money. In fact, the ‘but for’ clause means ‘but for that specific design/development plan’. So we have no way of knowing if some level of development would have occurred regardless. Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer has made is clear that this ‘but for’ clause is impossible to prove or audit.

The reality is that MANY people, when they vote for TIF, they vote for a specific project without realizing they’re writing a blank check for politicians who may be more interested in making wealthy interests and donors happy over ensuring the community meets everybody’s needs.

In the end, TIF money gambles on the future with little oversight or proof of its effectiveness. It takes badly needed property tax revenue, money that our schools desperately need, and gives it to investors so that they can boost their profits and wealth for the next 20 years while taxpayers pick up the tab. It’s time to end TIFs and fund local government through taxes, and if necessary, bonds.

UVM and Champlain College’s Admission Process Is Fueling Burlington’s Gentrification

UVM and Champlain College have a lot of power in shaping our community, in both positive and negative ways. We often hear about how 40% of UVM’s students living off campus increases non-students’ housing costs, and I’ve written about how as two of the city’s largest landlords with a captured client base, their exorbitant room and board costs likely distort rents citywide. There’s a third way that UVM and Champlain College contribute to Burlington’s gentrification, and that’s their admissions processes which are highly geared towards very wealthy families.

Thanks to the New York Times we can see a snapshot of UVM and Champlain College students’ economic backgrounds and how they compare to Burlington’s residents in 2016. Both schools have high rates of students from very wealthy backgrounds and low rates of students from very poor backgrounds, particularly when compared to Burlington residents. The median college student family is nearly 3 times as wealthy as the median Burlington family.

According to their data, not only are more than half of UVM and Champlain students from the top 20% wealthiest families, but only 4%-6% of students came from the bottom 20%. College students in Burlington are wealthy at 3 times the rate that Burlington residents are, while Burlington residents have 5-8 times higher rates of poverty than college students in Burlington.

These schools function less like educational institutions striving towards equity and more like businesses trying to maximize profits and growth. That’s the reason students and faculty are fighting against the administrations’ cuts to programs that aren’t ‘making money’.

More students come from families making $2.2 million a year than families making under $22,800 a year. A full 8,000 students come from families wealthier than 82% of all Burlington households.

NYTimes data shows that the trend of students coming from families much wealthier than Burlington residents has been consistent or increasing for decades. While UVM has become slightly less accessible since the early 2000s, Champlain College has catered towards significantly wealthier students and is their student body is now comparable to UVM’s.

How does an admissions process that caters to wealthy students effect low and moderate income Burlington residents? How does this process hurt low-income college students? How is such a model sustainable, and how do we keep Burlington from becoming an elite town for wealthy students and the business community that caters to them? Lastly, who is holding UVM and Champlain responsible for their role in hastening gentrification and making life harder for Burlington’s low income residents including low-income college students?

Many Low-Income Families are Being Gentrified Out of Burlington

For years now we have been hearing anecdotes about the harmful effects of gentrification on low income families in Burlington. The data in this post shows that elected officials have done nothing to slow the destruction of the widening income gap, while the low-income families remaining in Burlington are those living in worsening, abject poverty.

Over the past decade, elected Burlington officials have sat idly by as the city has morphed from one of the most livable places in America into a town that only the wealthy can afford. Businesses that served low-income communities closed, were priced out and evicted like Resource, while megalandlords like the Bissonnetes legally evicted over 300 low-income tenants and families.

Over a year ago I asked Mayor Weinberger about what he would do to stop poor residents from being legally evicted by ever-increasing gentrification, and he told me that this was “the best system we had” and offered no solutions to help these families. I clarified. “Are you saying that the best we can do in Burlington is let 300 poor families be priced out of the city?” Weinbeger said yes.

A year ago I researched childhood poverty in Chittenden County from 2003-2016 using free/reduced public school lunch data*, and discovered that while Burlington had lowered childhood poverty by 8%, nearly every surrounding communities’ childhood poverty increased. I believed at the time that this was likely a result of gentrification, poor families being priced out.

Data from https://education.vermont.gov/student-support/nutrition/school-programs/free-and-reduced-meals

The data shows that my theory is correct – within just 7 years, upwards of 30% of Burlington’s poor families have been priced out of Burlington.

While the overall number of BTV households have increased by 6% since 2009, and median income (adjusted for inflation) increased 8% ($3,445), low-income folks have not shared in this wealth. In fact, the income gap during this time increased 18% between households making under $35k a year and those making over $75k a year.

When you look a bit more into the data, low-income families have clearly been hit the worst by, so much so that in Burlington their share as a percentage of all families has decreased by 19% and 17% respectively. Yet 40% of Burlington’s children live in poverty because the families that are able to remain, thanks to public housing, limited housing vouchers, and limited nonprofit housing, are in ever greater poverty.

We are in a housing crises and our elected officials keep promoting trickle-down market-rate housing as a solution, which does nothing to slow the ravages of gentrification. After 7 years of failed policies under conservatives and centrists like Mayor Weinberger, council Democrats, and council Progressives, isn’t it time we tried some better policies that have a proven track record of helping low-income families, like investing money in low-income housing, rent protections, and higher minimum wage?

*A family of 3, average Burlington size, cannot make more than $37,167, or 1.85 times the federal poverty rate, in 2016 dollars, to qualify for free or reduced lunch.

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.

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?

 

The Boves are Slumlords and the City Shouldn’t Work with Them

We, as a community, are at a crossroads. Recent policy decisions by our current administration continue to put the welfare of businesses and wealthy landlords over the needs of our residents. But we can change that! A case study can be the Boves family, especially local landlord Rick Boves, shows us how if we let developers and landlords build for the good of the city, even when they have caused serious damage to residents, we send out a message that large landlords can play by a different set of rules.

Folks who have never rented from the Boves may not know that, as landlords, they leave much to be desired. In fact, after researching articles for this post, I have zero qualms calling them slumlords. As a former renter, the apartment wasn’t kept nice, where mice and house centipedes were regular guests, where you could still see bits of carpet where the floor met the wall. It wasn’t fixed up from the previous tenants before I moved in, and it cost a decent deal more than it was worth. So it is fair to say I’m a bit biased about the Boves as landlords.

Fortunately for us (but not for their tenants), there is quite an extensive history of the Boves’ treatment of their tenants. In 2013, the city held the restaurants’ liquor license due to over 40 housing codes they refused to resolve at their crumbling George Street apartments. I used to live on Monroe street and had the misfortune of walking by these miserable apartments every day. I cannot imagine how miserable it felt to live inside them.

You’d think, after an article like that came out shaming the Boves, they would spend a few dollars to at least make their apartments look decent on the outside. I think any reasonable, thoughtful landlord would admit their mistakes and try to change. But the Boves made no such efforts. In May of this year, with another 38 code violations still pending, the Bove family decided to knock down the apartments to build newer, pricier apartments (and a hotel), which their current tenant certainly couldn’t afford.

In 4 years, they have received over 78 code violations. 

It gets worse. The renters in those apartments were all very low income residents, some of whom I’ve been told even worked for Boves. If this feels like a Charles Dickens novel, you wouldn’t be wrong. These folks lived in abysmal housing, where “violations including broken windows, leaky plumbing, a cracked toilet seat, failed caulking, defective cooking equipment, and cracked walls and holes in the ceiling” were left unfixed. These aren’t the sort of violations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix – they are the type of reasonable fixes ANY landlord should make.

Instead of fixing up the apartments, the Bove family has moved their tenants to other buildings and are knocking it down to build luxury housing. What are the odds that the old tenants will be given affordable units?

Once, when Boves was cited for  ‘(L)live electrical wires dangling from a ceiling” at a North Williams apartment, the place was deemed uninhabiatble by Code Enforcement. What did the Boves have to say?

“You can write whatever you like. It doesn’t much matter to me.”

Now, the city, supported by Mayor Weinberger and by CEDO Director Noelle McKay, are considering selling a parking lot to Boves so he can build a boutique hotel. Land is a hot commodity in Burlington, and land this close to downtown, with support, could easily be converted into MUCH needed homeless or very low income housing – hell, it could and should be used to give Bove’s former tenants a decent place to live.

If this development happens, and if the city supports this development by selling off land, we will be sending a really terrible message, one where if you ignore our local laws, if you treat fellow human beings like shit, you will be rewarded.

We need to send our elected officials a message that this type of behavior should NOT be rewarded. Please email Director McKay, please email your city councilors and come to the city council meeting in a few weeks where councilors will vote on whether to sell land to Boves. They clearly do not deserve to be landlords, never mind to build new hotels or apartments in our beautiful city.