Enhancing Affordable Housing in Vermont

Housing affordability depends on a healthy ratio between employment–job numbers and wages on the one hand–and housing totals and cost on the other. The ability of Burlington’s government to influence this equation beyond city lines is limited yet it is the Chittenden County region within which residents choose jobs and housing. The county population is slowly growing, up 3.1% between 2010 and 2015, just about equal to the percentage of new dwelling units built. But housing is expensive.The median homeowner earns $65,340 but must pay $1,766 a month to keep a roof over head, exceeding the 30% of income nationally recognized as reasonable for housing. Still, 65% of families do live in their own homes, willing to skimp on other needs. Renters are no better off. The median rent in the county is $1,102 but median per capita income is only $33,977. This means only about $850 is available per head for rent. Slightly more than 10% of us are in poverty. We don’t seem to be growing ourselves out of the housing cost/wage squeeze dilemma. Total employment fell 3.1% between 2013 and 2014 while population increased by 2,175.[1]

To address the need for affordable housing we require more jobs with higher wages, beginning in the city and then region-wide. The first step is to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour region-wide, indexed to future inflation. This increase should extend proportionally to the wages for tipped workers and include agricultural laborers who now are guaranteed only the federal minimum; both categories are essential to our economy. At the same time, we must hold the line on property taxes that raise rents and squeeze small businesses. If we are to meet our housing and educational needs, the state must increase taxes on upper-income individuals and vacation properties. Our sales, alcohol, and room and meals taxes are already substantial. To raise them would depress economic activity.

There are things the City of Burlington by itself can do to grow the economy and make housing more affordable. It is unacceptable that nearly 200 modest owner-occupied houses surrounding Burlington’s airport have been or are slated for demolition due to aircraft noise, with potentially more to come. Burlington’s airport is not an appropriate site for excessively noisy aircraft. Some commercial properties in the downtown core have been “parked” for decades–left vacant eyesores while owners dither or wait for an eminent domain buyout. The City should increase property taxes on such parcels annually until they are rented or rebuilt. Where property suitable for industrial and technology starts exists–as in our South End Industrial District–the City must prioritize getting such businesses off the ground. This begins with business use of our city-own land now slated for the C2 section of the Champlain Parkway. Opening the C1 section, built 25 years ago and left fallow, would both stimulate additional activity in the Industrial Park and shunt truck traffic directly onto the Interstate and out of neighborhoods. In residential zones, large lots could house apartments over garages or as “in-law” ad-ons to the primary residence. I worked with Coalition for a Livable City and the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies to host a recent Housing Summit proposing this and it is included in the City’s Housing Action Plan.

Several of the proposals put forward by the consultants, czb, in their evaluation of Burlington’s inclusionary Zoning (IZ) program are sound.[2] By-right density bonuses for building affordable units could be increased, with building heights still kept within the 105-ft limit previously set in our Municipal Plan. However, reducing in-lieu payments levied on developers for failing to build their IZ quota from $115,000 to $75,000 makes less sense; the price of a new unit Champlain Housing Trust would build off-site to make up the short-fall is $225,000. Similarly, allowing IZ to kick in at 10 units for new developments, not the current 5, would be counterproductive. Other than Cambrian Rise and Bayberry Commons now in construction, there are few city sites with the potential for large developments. Rehab projects below a 10 unit threshold are already are exempt. Czb looks to Seattle as a model program addressing an array of housing challenges from homelessness to homeowner promotion. In Burlington, czb calls for a $12.9 million bond issue supported by the property tax, half going to the Housing Trust Fund for affordable units, half to subsidize private developers for building IZ a wide array of housing, including presumably “housing first” units for the homeless. I support this initiative but would match it with an equal reduction in TIF financing already approved but not expended. Thus the impact on the local property tax would be neutral. The TIF-related funds would come from withdrawing the public subsidy from the private Burlington Town Center. The state now pays $4 million for emergency housing for the homeless, most of this in the and around Burlington. Much of these funds should be diverted from temporary motel accommodations to “housing first” units to permanently house the most needy.

[1] http://wwwcensus.gov/uickfacts/table/PST045215/50007

[2]  czb, “Evaluation of the Cith of Burlington’s Enclusionary Zoning Ordinance”, January 2017.

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