Burlington Cares More About Tourists and Landlords (AIRBNB) than Renters

It was interesting to see Mayor Weinberger and the city of Burlington argue on the one hand that the only way to solve the housing crises is to increase housing vacancy rates through the housing market, while agreeing on the other hand to legalize and ‘regulate’ (I use the term loosely) Airbnb. If they cared about housing vacancy rates, or they cared about renters, they would have banned Airbnb outright.

Airbnb helps tourists find cheap housing and helps landlords make huge profits, while hurting the actual workers and renters that live in a community. And yet according to the city of Burlington,

410 unique short-term rental listings across many platforms (HC). This represents approximately 2% of all housing units in the city. There was a 25% increase in short-term rentals between 2018-2019 (HC), and the total number doubled from 2016-2019 (AirDNA).

AirDNA reports 66% of rentals are for the whole housing unit, and that 76% of listings were efficiency, one bedroom, or two-bedroom units.

https://www.burlingtonvt.gov/mayor/housingpolicy/str

What does this mean? In a city with 10,000 units and a 1.7% vacancy rate, 271 units, or 2.7%, have been taken off the housing market. If the city cared about housing vacancy, why wouldn’t they be excited for the opportunity to double the housing vacancy in one fell swoop?

The reason is that the folks in power, developers and landlords, would lose out if Airbnb was banned and heavily enforced. By keeping supply low, landlords are able to milk even more money from tenants. Developers can continue to make large profits on new buildings.

The city argues that they are getting money back – a whole $7,900 per unit, or $659 a month, and that therefore it is a good deal for tenants. That doesn’t even cover the cost of a moderately priced one-bedroom apartment. Hell, good luck finding anything in this city that isn’t run by CHT for that price.

And while the city claims that they will enforce the rule that ‘hosts’ (owner or tenant…so a landlord can rent out an apartment to an employee who then runs said Airbnb units) need to be living on site, this will lead to one of two different endings. 1) All the ‘accessory dwelling units the Mayor has proposed will turn in to Airbnbs (if you look at Airbnb in the South End, they already have), or 2) there’s no real enforcement mechanism (which has been outsourced to a ‘third party’ aka privatized), no defined fines for when landlords ignore such laws.

The loopholes write themselves. One has to wonder whether this was all intentional, just done through plain ignorance, or likely a mixture of the two? Renters continue to lose under this neoliberal, trickle-down housing ideology, while corporate giants like Airbnb continue to ruin communities.

Can’t Afford A Home in Burlington? Blame Landlords, Realtors, and Homeowners

(You can access a full-screen map here.)

Burlington is an expensive place to live. With a limited supply of single and two family homes, whether they be condos, mobile homes, or standalone single-family housing, it’s tough for Burlington’s low-income renters to afford stable housing. In fact, 25% of all homes in the city are rented out as investment properties. Blame this on landlords, realtors, and homeowners.

With over 2100 units of housing (13% of all housing in the city) and 6700 beds (17% of all beds in the city) being rented out by investors, rented on Airbnb, or owned as a second home, there are few if any affordable homes left for people to buy. Without housing protections and limits, without zoning changes in wealthy low-residential areas, without a real public investment in long-term low-income housing, too many of these homes are easily converted into investment properties, selling for prices that are out of reach for most families and middle-income workers. This benefits some folks, mainly realtors, homeowners, and landlords, while the majority of us suffer with few options.

It’s interesting to see where and how much of different types of housing have been turned into rentals. Single family homes are rented throughout the city, but are most clustered around UVM, legally allowed through grandfather clauses, rented out to college students often in unofficial frats and sororities. Most two family homes, historically a way for poorer families to afford housing, are rented out in the Old North End. Condos tend to be spread out around city edges, not as much dispersed in communities but built in stark, repetitive and ugly, giant condo developments that are removed from actual neighborhoods. Expect ‘Cambrian Rise’ to offer much of the same.

The toughest part about staying in Burlington as a low-income renter and community mental health worker is that most new developments are rentals, and even new condos will be expensive, in ugly condo complexes, and many will likely be bought as investment properties, making it harder and harder for low and moderate-income residents to exist, never mind thrive, in Burlington.

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.

Does Vermont Weatherization Program Hurt Low Income Renters?

Recently the Vermont legislature voted to raise the tax on heating oil a modest amount to help fund the state’s weatherization program. While the tax comes from good intentions, the program in practice will be taking money from low-income renters and giving that money to low-income homeowners and wealthier, often absentee, landlords.

The weatherization program, along with the federally funded Burlington Lead Program, have similar successes and challenges. Any Vermonter making less than 80% Area Median Income (AMI) can have the state help pay to insulate their house and lower heating bills. That’s good for low-income homeowners, since most low-income Vermonters cannot afford such improvements to their housing.

However, the program also applies to renters making less than 80% AMI, and it is not clear if these improvement help low-income tenants in perpetuity. Like the state’s ‘business incentive program’, while there are quality control oversights, there are no clear benchmarks that landlords must follow, no maximum rent restrictions after they have completed the work, and it’s not clear if there is any organization keeping track of what happens to low-income renters after improvements have been made to make sure landlords don’t see them as a free investment.

Landlords get free repairs and investment in their private business from the government, upwards of $8,000 per unit, with few strings attached. On top of this, the program only requires for multi-unit buildings that 25% of tenants are low income or 50% of the units are rented at 80% AMI. Rent stabilization is required if a landlord has a lien on it, but the stabilization only lasts one year. Rent stabilization is also required if the repairs cost more than the total savings, but there is no publicly available data to know if these actually happen, how often, and how long.

While weatherization and other programs help low-income homeowners, there needs to be more oversight to ensure that wealthier landlords, especially negligent and absentee slumlords, do not get this money with few strings attached. There needs to be guarantees that landlords cannot raise rents post-weatherization or evict tenants ‘by right’. There also needs to be a mechanism to fine absentee landlords who won’t weatherize their units to the detriment of their tenants. Until then, this program, especially considering the new funding source, will likely hurt low-income renters at the expense of wealthier landlords.

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.