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.

The Downtown Improvement District Exposed Burlington’s Pathetic Public Processes

(You Can Read More About the Downtown Improvement District and Burlington Business Association here.)

When local government thinks and act like a business, everyone but business owners and landlords lose. Burlington’s Downtown Improvement District (DID) process shows that while ‘stakeholders’ and self-selecting and unscientific ‘focus groups’ may work for businesses, they are quite useless and even harmful for effective, local democratic government. Lousy and rushed public processes have become a hallmark of Burlington’s Weinberger administration, and the DID process was the ugliest process yet.

Just take a look at the list of stakeholders included in the 38+ person PUMA focus groups to see how these meetings were made up of predetermined interest groups, not a cross section of local residents. PUMA met with ‘stakeholders’, interest groups with power or influence in a system, while obviously excluding more marginalized and disconnected citizens.

Even the online survey was heavily skewed towards native-English speakers with high levels of wealth. DID supporters, including the Burlington Business Association, who sent out the RFP for the survey in a clear conflict of interest and blurring of government and business lobbying, touted this flawed focus group and survey as evidence of mass public support for a new business district. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that the 1,143 survey respondents, the bulk of collected ‘public’ opinion, were even asked if they supported a Downtown Improvement District.

The survey respondents were far, far wealthier and much, much older than the average Burlington resident. Those making over $100,000+ a year were over-represented by 20%, while those making under $50,000 a year, half of all Burlington residents, were under-represented by 33%. Young adults were under-represented by 31%.

” Mayor Weinberger, speaking at the Democrats’ party, said the DID expansion proposal marked a “very big change” that voters weren’t ready for. He said the authorization request left many details to be ironed out later, which made it hard to quell voters’ doubts. ” – Seven Days

The Downtown Improvement District is another in a long line of ‘public’ processes with very limited participation and predetermined outcomes. These processes are pinned on a series of lies that are designed to give the appearance of collaborative and inclusive democracy, while bowing to wealthy business and real estate interests. These lies further erode trust in our local government, further depresses daily civic participation, and leaves residents feeling powerless and disconnected from their own community.

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.

The Burlington Business Association and Mayor Weinberger Rigged the Downtown Improvement District Process

This is Part 3 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, 2, 4, are here.

The Burlington Downtown Improvement District was rigged from the starts, with the vast majority of members coming from the Business Community, particularly the Burlington Business Association.

I came across a document (also shared by other community members just a few days ago) that was way too important to save. It shows the level of coziness and conflicts that exists between our elected officials and businesses in Burlington.

6 out of 9 members of the Downtown Improvement District Advisory Committee were either directly picked by, owned businesses that were members of, or have business partners that work for, the Burlington Business Association.

A total of 66% of the committee members were directly influenced by the Burlington Business Association, and 89% were influenced by the BBA or by the Mayor, who seems to favor the BBA over other local political advocacy groups.

In an RFP written by the Burlington Business Association in 2017 for the new Downtown ‘Improvement’ District, I came across two parts that raise serious concerns about the entire process as we vote in a couple days to privatize our downtown and put it in he hands of a select wealthy few.

First, the RFP discusses the DID working group. Do you know anything about them, like maybe how many public meetings they had? Hard to tell, but a quick Google search suggests few people knew about them and that 0 meetings were open to the public.

The DID Working Group includes representatives from key organizations leading the project for the City of Burlington. It includes a single representation from the following organizations: a.) Burlington Business Association, Kelly Devine b.) Church Street Marketplace BID, Ron Redmond c.) Community and Economic Development Office, City of Burlington, Gillian Nanton d.) Department of Public Works, Patrick Mulligan 2 This group meets regularly, up to weekly. This group will work closely with the selected contractor to provide input, direction and local leadership on the project. They will serve as the key point of contact for the contractor. Kelly Devine of the Burlington Business Association will be the key contact and will call on DID Working Group members to support this effort as needed and as their areas of expertise warrant.

Okay but at least the DID Advisory Group was democratic, open to the public, and received input from lots of citizens, yes?

Turns out Google also comes up with a whopping 0 results for any meeting times or announcements of public meetings made by the advisory group. But I did find a city document suggesting 21 people voted on the question of a DID in a ‘Town Meeting’. Yes, 21 people, along with the 9 DID advisory members, may have decided all of this for us.

Downtown Improvement District Advisory Committee Members with Nominating Organization

City Council: Councilor Adam Roof
● City Council: Downtown Resident – to be appointed
● Church Street Marketplace: Jeff Nick, Chair
● Mayor Weinberger – Legal Professional – Robert DiPalma, Paul, Frank & Collins, Burlington Resident
● Mayor Weinberger – Financial Professional – vetting of candidates underway
● BBA Nominee, Downtown Property Owner – David Schilling, Investors Corp of Vermont
● BBA Nominee, Downtown Office Tenant – Ashley Bond, University of Vermont Medical Center Manager of Property and Real Estate
● BBA Nominee, Downtown Retail Tenant – Kara Alnaswari, Leibling
● BBA Nominee, Marketing Professional – Rich Price, Select Design

Please, think about this.

The committee that has been paraded around as fully supporting the privatization plan was formed 4/9ths by the BBA, 2/9ths by the Mayor who supports and works closely with the BBA, 1/9th the Church Street Marketplace Chair who is a member of the BBA, 1/9th a citizen chosen by the council and 1/9th Councilor Roof who runs a business in a clear conflict of interest with an employee of the BBA (and his roommate).

Councilor Adam Roof (I, Ward 8) clear conflict of interest voting on items that are submitted by and affect the Burlington Business Association and his Business Partner.

As Councilor Roof so eloquently stated about the vote,

…he was excited that after nearly two years of work the proposal was before the council to send to the Charter Change Committee.  “From the beginning there was one real guiding principle that we knew we must operate from if this eventual proposal was going to earn the support of a majority of this council and of course the voting public. We must ensure this proposal be built upon a foundation of both common ground and common good in so far that it must deliver both economic and social vitality to our downtown for the benefit of our entire community. I believe that after a lot of work this proposal strikes that balance.”

Could anyone help me understand how this Downtown ‘Improvement’ District process was done in a thoughtful, democratic way, where the vast majority of residents and workers were fairly represented in this drastic change, and how the public was included in this advisory committee? Because this looks like clear conflicts to me.

The Downtown Privatization Folks Are Wrong – Burlington’s Downtown Economy Is Healthy

This is Part 1 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 1,2, 3, 4, are here.

Folks who support the Downtown Privitization Plan will tell you our downtown economy is struggling. Yet what they don’t tell you is that while Burlington Business owners have seen profits grow by 20% in real value since 2008, downtown workers have not shared in any of those profits.

The many pro-business/anti-worker folks (along with the powerful Burlington Business Association) supporting the city’s rushed Downtown Improvement District, a plan that does absolutely nothing to meaningfully increase democratic participation or offer inclusion to marginalized voices, will tell you that this privatization plan needs to happen. They will offer the same arguments they used when trying to sell us the ongoing $22-million-public-funding mall debacle.

They will tell you that Burlington’s economy, and Church Street, are dying, and the only way to save our entire city is not by making sure everyone has enough money to afford basic necessities so they can support local businesses, but rather that we hand over even more control to wealthy non-Burlington landlords and non-Burlington businesses.

Why is it that Burlington is a good enough place for many of these folks to make money, on the backs of workers and renters, but not a good enough place for them to live, raise children, and spend said profits in?

The data, however, doesn’t support their doom-and-gloom claims for business owners (for workers and renters, that’s a different story for another day). In fact, Burlington’s economy is very stable and has been growing well (20%) since the Great Recession, particularly when we account for weakened unions, runaway healthcare costs, growing income and wealth inequality, and stagnant wages for most residents.

Meal, Rooms, and Alcohol sales have grown by 69% when factored in for inflation.

The picture is much less rosy when we consider Retail and Use taxes, which have been hit hard by many factors, including the problem that most workers pay over 40% of their post-taxed income to rent.

Sales and Use taxes have decreased by 50% when factored with inflation.

It looks like maybe the Burlington economy, while not a magical beast that can defy national and international trends of wealth inequality and global capital ravishing local economies, has been quite consistent.

The truth is that since 2005, when accounting for inflation, our economy has shrunk by 1.1%.

Since January 2009, Burlington’s retail and food economy have grown by 20% overall, so why again do we need to hand over power to the few folks who have actually made money since the 2009 Recession?

Bissonette and Legal Mass-Evictions

Over the course of a couple years, Bissonette has legally evicted nearly all of their tenants by upgrading their housing; the vast majority of said tenants were using Section-8 vouchers. This is not only entirely legal in an unregulated housing market like Burlington, but it is putting a huge, terrible housing crisis on Burlington’s low income residents as the city loses hundreds of units of affordable housing. While Mayor Weinberger regularly talks about the need to build market-rate housing to meet our city’s housing crisis, this crisis seems to exist outside of the Mayor’s reality. In fact it wasn’t until CEDO, the mayor, and city councilors wanted to sell city land to known slumlord Rick Bove that any elected officials recognized this severe loss of housing.

Just look at the numbers – in the past few years nearly 300 units of housing, most of which is located in the Old North End, over 540 bedrooms, are no longer affordable. The average price per bedroom in a Bissonette apartment, based off of their own numbers online, is $843 per bedroom. This is how gentrification raises the rents of previously affordable apartments, as $1700 for a 2 bedroom apartment is about the price for new Redstone apartments.

As far as I know, no elected officials have offered solutions on how to mitigate these legal mass evictions, or how to protect our city’s most vulnerable residents. These are the sort of issues that really define gentrification, and are the issues that our elected officials need to be actively fighting so that our must vulnerable neighbors are’t priced out the city entirely.

Updated: Burlington City Employee Union Opposes Mayor Weinberger

Post title updated to reflect that a large portion of city employees are not unionized, and to reflect that many union members are saying that membership never took a vote. What at first looked like a huge win for Carina seems to be blowing back pretty hard, especially when several other city unions had already endorsed Miro.

What does it mean when the Burlington city employees’ union, the folks who carry out this administration’s decisions, unanimously oppose the current mayor? It’s certainly not a vote of confidence, and seems to highlight some real friction in Burlington right now.

Who Funds Mayor Weinberger’s Campaigns?

Every election cycle, local news organizations mention that Mayor Weinberger has strong financial connections to the developer, landlord, and real estate communities. But how strong are those connections? By scouring old campaign finance records, along with current finance reports, I have discovered that more than half of Miro’s campaign contributions, $150,000, come from local businesses, developers, landlords, folks in the housing community, and lawyers.

I believe that this sort of money can end swaying policy and stacking our commissions in ways that consolidate power, with 40% of our commissioners coming from business owners, developers, landlords, real estate professionals, and lawyers. While I cannot talk for Miro, in my own city council campaign I felt the pull of wealthy donors. A wealthy friend of mine donated $800 to my small campaign, about 16% of my total contributions. I was incredibly grateful to this person, and when they had a suggestion about my campaign or policy, I was willing to listen, even if I didn’t always agree.

When Mayor Weinberger is surrounded by commissioners who are also key donors, are opportunities being missed for commissions to recruit members of the community who may not be able to make political contributions, who may have a very different Burlington experience than those with wealth and power?

Note: I can share my data upon request, but have decided it’s best to keep individual names private.

The New Burlington Town Center Is Already Hurting Working Class Residents

I have been a very vocal critic of the Burlington Town Center for several years, mainly because the development relies on trickle down housing and trickle down economics to help low income residents. A recent article in VTDigger about UVM Medical Center’s expansion to the BTC, and the pressure and ‘passion’ Mayor Weinberger used to persuade them to move there, shows how the Mayor’s policies consistently hurt more residents, especially vulnerable ones, than help them.

Sources said the mayor lost his cool at the meeting and reminded hospital officials about the sweet deal they had for city services, though Weinberger said that argument was “not a major part of the conversation,” largely because the city’s hands are tied for another decade plus.

(As an aside, the Mayor’s ‘passion’, which has been described to me as temper tantrums, a good source tells me is a big reason why beloved former Library Director Rubi Simon decided to leaver her job and move out of state over a year ago.)

Now that the hospital will be paying an extra $1,00,000 a year, who will be paying for it? As the article makes clear, “patients”. It’s as if the mayor is so insulated from the yearly 8%-10% yearly increase in healthcare costs and premiums, that adding another $1,000,000 onto the backs of overworked Burlingtonians remains somehow overlooked. Not to mention that UVM Medical Center will likely use this as an excuse to continue paying MUCH less than the fair share of a $1 billion business should be paying for their fees in lieu of property taxes.

Who will benefit from the Burlington Town Center? Businesses on and around Church Street, landlords, hotels, and restaurants. Bringing people to the downtown core, even just for a few hours, means they will spend some amount of money there. The city will likely see a small increase in sales tax and alcohol tax revenue. Property taxes, however, will remain stagnant for 20 years, due to voters’ majority to support the TIF vote (supported almost unanimously by city councilors except Max Tracy). Instead of getting upto $1,000,000 a year in badly needed revenue, we will have to wait until the next generation is voting and having children.

Who will lose from the Burlington Town Center? Workers, especially low-wage workers, service workers, and now anyone who uses the UVM Medical Center (which is, essentially, everyone because they have a monopoly). Wages for service workers continue to remain stagnant, and likely the wealthy Church Street business owners, most of whom don’t live in Burlington, will end up pocketing any extra revenue.

“This decision is highly defensible” after all the factors are weighed, Weinberger said.

As long as those factors don’t include the vast majority of Burlington workers and service workers? Mayor Weinberger, the working class hero.

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.