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.

Burlington Affordable Housing and Tenant Laws FAQ

Burlington tenant laws are already strong so why would we need more?

The truth is that Burlington tenant laws may be stronger than many cities, but fall far short of helping marginalized residents (see: Fair Housing Report, VT Legal Aid Report), especially when little money is allocated towards enforcement. There are numerous ways to evict tenants, including not renewing their lease, jacking the rent up at the end of a lease, or upgrading all the units and charging a lot more thereby displacing low income residents like Bissonette. On top of this, while it is illegal to discriminate due to housing, it’s nearly impossible to prove, and because Burlington is an ‘at will’ renting community, landlords can evict you for any little reason as long as it’s not obviously discriminatory. The truth is that the current policies and laws are not helping in their intended way.

Can’t we build our way out of this problem? Isn’t it an issue of supply and demand?

Which problem? The problem of housing costing too much? Building more market housing will only lower costs on the high end of the market, since most new market-rate housing is too expensive for most renters. If you’re a renter in Burlington, odds are your rent is so unaffordable that even with the top of the market dropping, it won’t affect your own rent. Higher wages would be one way to mitigate this, but rent protections and limits would be best to keep landlords from gouging. On top of this, as long as we have two huge colleges with over 5,000 renters and they charge $1800 a month for 2 students to share a bedroom, even supply and demand won’t effect the market in a typical way.

Doesn’t inclusionary zoning help our housing crunch?

Not really. Inclusionary zoning (IZ), the idea that a certain percentage (15%-20% in Burlington) of new housing should be affordable so that a few lucky families can economically integrate, is a nicer version of trickle-down housing, particularly since our city and state are not putting serious money behind new affordable housing construction. Also, inclusionary zoning rental prices are based on area median income, which is likely 50% higher than Burlington’s renter median income – so even if you are making a ‘livable wage’, you likely cannot afford even inclusionary zoning rental prices.

Doesn’t inclusionary zoning hurt our housing situation?

For-profit developers, particularly Erik Hoekstra of Redstone, would like you to believe that IZ slows overall development in the city, because inclusionary zoning does hurt their bottom line. The truth is that numerous studies have shown that inclusionary zoning marginally affects single family home prices (by 1%), while there are minimal drawbacks to inclusionary zoning. Bigger issues for developers include the inflationary increase in land value and cost, and zoning in the city, which bans dense development throughout the south end, the new north end, and parts of the hill section. Finding a way to limit this land inflation would help developers, renters, and folks who would like to buy in Burlington but cannot afford to.

If we build more new housing, low income people can move into the older housing, right?

In theory, if the older housing is affordable, then yes. In practice, since so many people in the Burlington area make below livable wages, there will always be competition for older housing between low income residents and recent college graduates. Also, if we take that logic elsewhere, it ends up being very problematic. If we build new schools or hospitals, if we grow better food, etc, then low income people can take the cheaper and lower-quality versions, right? Everyone deserves good housing, and just because you work in a job that underpays doesn’t mean you should have to fight over wealthier folks’ crumbs.

Won’t new market-rate buildings in neighborhoods help relieve housing pressure in those neighborhoods?

As usual, in theory, yes, it should help. In practice, when new housing goes into a new neighborhood without rent limits or protections, the rental prices of surrounding properties creep upwards. Not to mention that as new, pricier housing is built, prices everywhere creep up, while new, fancier restaurants and corner stores open, pricing out the low-income families that are able to stick it out. No one wants to live in a community where all the businesses are geared towards a different class than them.

I’m a YIMBY, Yes In My Back Yard, unlike you, who is a NIMBY, No In My Back Yard.

Let me ask you a question – would you be okay with a 5 story building, with 100 new people, moving in right next door, and all the construction and noise that will come with it? Are you willing to go to your elected officials and city hall and demand zoning changes that allow for dense, market rate housing to be built everywhere in the city, even in your literal backyard? If so, great, you are one of the few YIMBYs! I hope you will also fight for greater public investment in low-income housing.

We have already built low income housing, so why do we need more?

It’s true that Burlington has more affordable housing than any other community. Yet there is such a strong need for housing for those who make so little money, and the current plan to ensure 20% of the next 3,500 units of housing to be affordable falls far short of what is needed. Imagine a pyramid of need, and then flip the pyramid and make that second pyramid one of development. We need to align new development with those who need it.

Can’t we just follow the city’s housing needs assessment?

The 2015 housing needs assessment doesn’t parse out housing data, and therefore makes it an incredibly difficult document to use as a road map. While it talks in broad strokes about housing in the community, we have no idea what % of low income residents pay more than 50% of their income to rent, from this document we do not know who needs housing the most (severely low income residents). We all believe we need more housing. But if we don’t know who needs what type of housing, which income groups and household types we should be targeting, then most of the new 1 and 2 bedroom housing will not meet the needs of the community. It’s like being asked to build a bike, deciding to build a mountain bike, then finding out that your client wanted a road bike with attachments for multiple children. And you never asked.

We have a low income Housing Trust Fund which the mayor and council doubled – that’s a really good start, right?

After 6 years in office, this administration and council have committed $160,000 more a year to affordable housing, for a total of $310,000. That will buy 1-2 units of housing a year, total. When one considers how many resources are devoted to solving parking downtown, or the mall redevelopment, it’s hard to feel like elected officials are interested in investing public funds for low income housing.

Don’t we already have housing vouchers? Isn’t that enough public support?

With federal dollars, we do have housing vouchers through BHA. Unfortunately these vouchers, which give residents ‘choice’, have failed in their original mission. Not only is the wait for a voucher around 10 years long, but often these vouchers don’t come close to covering 70% of market rate rent. On top of this, while proponents claim that vouchers give families more living flexibility, the truth is that so few apartments are affordable that their options are severely limited. Vouchers are an unsustainable way to give federal money to a handful of landlords, often slumlords, who at any time can (and do!) upgrade their units and kick out their low-income tenants who can no longer afford higher rents. A better use of funds would be to support permanent, affordable housing.