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?

The Ultimate NIMBYs in Burlington are Wealthy Condo/Mansion-Owners

(You can view a larger, full-screen map here.)

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.

The map is crude but you get the point.

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).

Seven Days Misses the Mark on Housing in Burlington

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.

Quote 1:

“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.

Quote 2:

“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.

Quote 3:

“”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.

Quote 4:

“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…

Quote 5:

“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.

Quote 6:

“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.

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.

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.

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.