Access to affordable housing is no longer associated with the abject poor and homeless. It is a problem that affects low and middle income workers and their quality of life. As part of a special news series, WAMC is talking a look at housing — and how communities and governments across the region are addressing what is becoming a crisis for municipalities across the country. In the first story of our six-part series, North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley examines what Burlington has been doing this past year after the mayor called for concrete action in his State of the City address.
Affordable housing is becoming a crisis in Vermont. Vermont Housing and Conservation Board Executive Director Gus Seelig says Burlington and surrounding Chittenden County mirror statewide problems. "The problem in Chittenden County is that there is a shortage of supply and that applies to other places in the state too. The Upper Connecticut River Valley around the Hartford area has a very tight housing market. Montpelier has a very tight housing market. In other places in the state, there's a real issue around quality of housing and it's too expensive for what it is. So there's a range of problems and in general, people of modest means just can't cover the costs.”
The city of Burlington finalized a Housing Action Plan In 2015, drafted following the release of a 2014 Downtown Housing Strategy Report. That 2014 report noted: “The lack of market rate housing development over the past decade, particularly in Burlington’s downtown, has created supply constraints that further exacerbate increasing housing costs….”
Old North End resident Mayumi Cornel says low wage workers like her are being priced out of Burlington. “I work on Church Street and a lot of the people I know can't afford to live in Burlington. If they're college students, they have to have four or five roommates and live in little ***. The housing stock here is so old and when it gets upgraded you get priced out, especially if you don't have Section Eight.”
The city’s housing plan described an affordability crisis with: “…severe supply constraints, rising home prices, and escalating rents that are further impacting affordability in a market where a typical renter household allocates more than 44% of total income to housing costs, significantly above that of other cities.”
The Housing Action Plan outlined 22 proposals in five categories including strategic application of municipal resources such as the Housing Trust Fund and revisions to Inclusionary Zoning; reduction of regulatory barriers; new strategies for student rentals; new approaches to homelessness; and creating appropriate senior housing.
Two years later, Burlington created an Inclusionary Zoning Working Group that presented recommendations to the City Council in July 2018 after reviewing a consultant’s study of its Inclusionary Zoning law on 20 years of projects. It offered three scenarios to move forward and added recommendations such as dealing with affordable housing and college housing, parking requirements and income standards.
During his April 2019 State of the City address, Mayor Miro Weinberger said the city must redouble efforts to tackle the housing crisis. “The shortage of housing has become our largest social challenge as a region and as a country. Building a wide array of homes from more housing for the chronically homeless to more market rate rentals is the solution to many of our key issues and concerns. When we create more homes, we are taking a step toward a future where housing is a human right.”
The Democrat added the city has been pursuing a two part strategy over the past seven years: continuing to build as much permanently affordable housing as possible along with policies and pro-active efforts to create more homes for households of all backgrounds. The mayor says the second strategy included a study of apartment vacancy rates. “During the years 2006 to 2011 the city produced only 67 new apartments and had an average vacancy rate of just point-7% during that period. Over the past seven years the average vacancy rate more than doubled to one-and-a-half percent. Now, let's be clear, one-and-a-half percent is still too low. We will need to see sustained vacancy rates of twice that or more to get to our affordability and inclusion goals. However, these trends of increased new homes and rising vacancy rates refute the idea that new housing supply doesn't matter and should be seen as a call to more action.”
The mayor hosted two Housing Summits to address policy and regulations as developers worked on increasing housing in the city.
In June, the first summit brought together advocates for low-income people, developers, housing stakeholders and the president of the Minneapolis city council, Lisa Bender. She described efforts by the city of about 430,000 to address affordable housing. It has a 2% vacancy rate compared to Burlington’s 1.5%. Bender said the two cities have similar issues and challenges. “I think our story shows what happens when a community comes together around its values, and starts asking some deep questions about what's working today, and what isn't, and what are the risks of staying with the status quo?”
Mayor Weinberger hosted a second summit in September, which collated work conducted over the summer. He outlined what he labeled progress, but some residents began heckling him. “I think we're starting to see that in the data…”
Man in back of room: “We’re tired of…”
Weinberger: “The ah…”
Woman in back of auditorium: “We don’t get heard and you’re going to hear us.”
Weinberger: “That’s great that’s what tonight is about.”
Woman: “I can’t afford to live here without Section Eight. This is the only way we get heard.”
Weinberger: “Um you know it pains me to hear that you feel that’s the only way you get heard.”
Burlington resident Charles Winkleman was among the hecklers and holding a sign saying “renter.” He claimed the mayor and city officials are not paying attention to the real needs among low income residents, labeling the housing summits a farce. “It was really a sham because our government doesn't work for the 60% of Burlington residents who are renters. It works for the landlords, for the developers. It works for the homeowners. To make a legitimate and meaningful amount of low income housing we need to be investing millions upon millions a year in social housing that is owned by the municipality. I did research at the last two summit events, and only 25% of the folks who were there were renters in Burlington even though we make up 60% of the city. And even a smaller percentage of those were low income renters, even though they make up 25% of the city. And so he's taking a consensus of folks who have money.”
On the practical side the city celebrated the opening of a new 76 unit affordable housing building in the city’s New North End. The average rent at Laurentide Apartments is about $1,000, about $500 less than Fair Market Rent in the area. Mary Ploof is on Social Security and says she would not be able to live elsewhere without a Section Eight voucher that lowers her cost even more. “Where else could you go from 200-something a month? You can't. You can't find nothing like that. They pay for the heat and they paid for central air and so we pay rent and lights, that's it.”
Standing nearby was another resident of the complex. Reanna Huestis was initially skeptical that Laurentide would actually be affordable but with a Section Eight voucher she applied for an apartment. “I'm right here in Burlington. I’m not like right in the center of downtown. But I'm close by. Close enough that I just hop on a bus go down, and I can do and go wherever else I want to go and it's just a lot easier. I came from Shelburne Village, that’s the last place I lived, and it was hard commuting just makes more sense just to live here.”
Adjacent to the Laurentide building, new units are being created as the former Champlain College is refurbished and rebuilt. It’s part of an effort to create 800 new homes in an 800 acre site just north of the center city.
At the same time the construction was occurring city councilors reviewed regulations that might impede construction of or access to affordable housing. At its October 7th meeting the Burlington City Council approved a resolution to adopt a series of housing policy reforms that were a direct result of the summit. Lead sponsor Ward 5 Democrat Chip Mason: “These four proposals can be summarized as follows: the first calls for an updating of our standards for energy efficiency in rental housing. The second proposal encourages the creation of Accessory Dwelling Units. The third proposal asks to consider implementation of a regulatory framework for short-term rentals. The fourth proposal seeks to revise the city’s approach to minimum parking requirements. The final proposal asks to consider the restoration and increase in the city’s level of funding in order to support the Housing Trust Fund.”
At a December meeting the Burlington city council took final action on one of those four items. It approved on a 10 to 2 vote a charter change, which now goes to voters, to increase funding for the Housing Trust Fund from a half-cent to one cent per hundred dollars of assessed property value. Ward 1 Independent Sharon Foley-Bushor says the trust fund has directly generated more than $6 million and over $30 million in supplemental investments in affordable housing. “To me, you don't only look at the dollars that you're asking the taxpayers to pay but understanding that that then is expanded significantly.”
Councilor Mason warned it will be a controversial ballot question. “I'll be supporting this because I believe it furthers this council and administration's commitment to affordable housing. But I did hear from some constituents who are feeling this is yet another tax increase if it goes through.”
Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition coordinator Erhard Mahnke notes that the network of non-profits can only produce affordable homes based on available funding. “And at the federal level, much of that has been cut and slashed over many, many years. If I look back to the late 1970s, which was a high point of federal funding, there's been a devolution and disinvestment by the federal government over many years. Senator Sanders was the original sponsor of the first new affordable housing program in over 20 years the National Housing Trust Fund.”
Some low income individuals distrust the ongoing efforts by the city and advocates. Albert Petrarca was at the second Burlington Housing Summit. “This mayor is engaged in a project that is a pro-gentrification project, whose goal is to socially cleanse the city of people like me. So they're building up, but they're building up into an ever higher market value for the people who they want to now import into the city at the expense of the people who built this city: the poor, the working poor, the working class.”
Burlington has inclusionary zoning ordinances that require 20 percent of new housing downtown and 25 percent along the waterfront must be affordable.
Some audio in this report is courtesy of Channel 17 Town Meeting Television.