Does Burlington’s Zoning Hurt Housing Development?

Our Zoning

One thing that bothered me during the debate around the mall redevelopment, particularly changing the zoning downtown, was the argument that all density is automatically good for all of Burlington’s residents. For the most part, the folks arguing passionately for more density, those who self-described as YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard) seemed to be okay with density as long as it wasn’t right next to them, in essence contradicting their own argument.

Dense living has it’s benefits and its drawbacks, there’s no question about it. And if we want to push for policies that encourage density, we need to be honest about the good and bad, and ensure that both good and bad are spread fairly throughout the city. Unfortunately, based on current zoning, this is not the case. Areas of the city with high rates of home ownership, along with higher rates of household income, are the least dense parts of the city.

It’s tough to see that even members of the Inclusionary Zoning Working Group seem to be okay with these different zoning schemes (including David White, Brian Pine, and Nancy Owens), even though the data below suggests that different zoning could alleviate some of our housing crisis. To his credit, John Davis advocated for more regular zoning throughout the city, arguing that these policies hurt development and inclusionary zoning.

Inclusionary Zoning and Housing Segregation

John Davis is on to a really important point. Since 1990, of the 57 projects that included inclusionary zoning units, 44 occurred downtown or in the old north end. So while 77% of all projects with mixed-income housing occurred in the densest part of the city, only 23% occurred in the sections of the city with the highest levels of home-ownership, with a measly 5% in the south end.

Looking at a random example, I believe that land costs are not drastically different between the south end, new north end, and old north end, and in fact costs are so low in some parts of the new north end that new, more dense development could occur there for quite some time in to the future. Take a comparison of three random properties.

Old North End: 209 North Winooski Ave, land is assessed at $112,700 on a 8,168 square foot lot, or $13.79 per square foot.

South End: 273 South Prospect Street, land is assessed at $213,400 on a 14,800 square foot lot, or $14.42 per square foot

New North End: 42 Venus Ave, land is assessed at $70,800 on a 8,890 square foot lot, or $7.96 per square foot.

Economic and Racial Segregation

A Fair Housing Report concluded that this sort of zoning could make economic and racial segregation in our city worse, with segregation increasing 50% since 1990. Data from the 2010 Census reinforces this point.

If we are going to be a dense city, a livable and walkable city, we should expect that every part of the city should be zoned for dense living. By changing our zoning we can set an example for surrounding communities, that we expect all residents to share in the benefits and drawbacks of city living, regardless of whether they are renters or homeowners, business owners or business workers. Until then, we will continue to be a city divided, a city where some folks, those who tend to have more money or have lived in the city for decades, have a drastically different experience than newer, or poorer, residents.

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.

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?