A proposed amendment to Burlington’s Comprehensive Development Ordinance that would extend a residential occupancy limit of four unrelated adults to high-density areas returned to the City Council on Monday, and so did frustrated residents and wary landlords.
In February six of seven Democrats supported the same proposal, designed to deal with noise, vandalism and other problems attributed mainly to college students. But three Republicans, including then-mayoral candidate Kurt Wright, joined two Progressives, two independents and Democrat David Hartnett to defeat it in an 8-6 vote.
This time the amendment survived a first reading with 12 of 14 votes, resulting in its referral to the Ordinance Committee for further study and public hearings. After that it will go to the Planning Commission, and ultimately return to the council for a final vote.
More than a dozen homeowners, renters and landlords addressed the council before it acted. Residents provided examples of unruly behavior and placed much of the blame on landlords whom one person called “college town profiteers.”
According to resident Emily Lee, more than 75 percent of the population in her Buell Street neighborhood is between 18 and 24 years old. When she complained to the police about one loud, late-night party her home was egged, she reported. “Our neighborhood is in crisis and we ask for your help,” she said.
If high density housing is going to be permitted, Lee added, “then there must be rules and they must be enforced.”
Most landlords who spoke agreed with her about the need for vigorous enforcement. But they also argued that the proposed ordinance change is not a solution. “You guys are not enforcing the laws you have,” charged Gene Richards, a landlord who also serves on the Airport Commission.
Richards claimed that landlords haven’t been contacted to help deal with misbehaving tenants. “You can’t be bad if you don’t know you’re bad,” he said. “The bottom line is you need to fulfill your commitments.”
Another landlord, Eric Winslow, said that most landlords did not even know an ordinance change was in the works when it first came to the City Council in February. He also disputed the connection between having more than four bedrooms and the number of noise violations.
Bob Hemley, an attorney with the Gravel and Shea law firm who represents several landlords, suggested that density may be a “code word” for students, and urged both enforcement and a full deliberative process. However, he also warned the council about “inviting legal challenges” if his clients find that the ordinance affects their rights as property owners.
He and others, including some residents, noted that the past policy of imposing a $200 fine on those who violate the local noise ordinance seems to have been abandoned.
The city’s current occupancy limits do not include high density neighborhoods, although the Planning Commission has recommended in the past that all residential areas should be covered.
“It’s an untenable situation,” said Councilor Max Tracy, a sponsor of the change who was elected to the council in March representing Ward 2, an inner-city area where many students live off campus. Like others on the council, and in the audience, he does not consider the proposal a panacea. But he called it a necessary step “toward regaining the dignity and control of our neighborhoods.”
Ward 3’s Rachel Siegel, another Progressive recently elected to the council, said she would support the decision to move forward but isn’t yet “sold on the change.” Siegel worries that it could hurt low income residents who live together or possibly lead to rent increases.
Ward 1 Democrat Ed Adrian acknowledged that the city already has legal tools to deal with “parties, trash and noise.” But he called them Band-aids that do not get to the root of chronic problems in neighborhoods with a high percentage of student-occupied units.
Bad behavior is not the only problem, added Bram Kranichfeld, who also represents Ward 2 and sponsored the proposal back in February. Housing stock has been “irreversibly turning into low-quality, crowded housing,” he said, and the city has “sold out” his constituents “for the benefit of a few landlords” by failing to impose occupancy restrictions much earlier.
Kranichfeld has previously noted that his ward is dealing with deteriorating housing stock, maintenance issues, vandalism, litter and other problems.
Although there was broad agreement that the problem is reaching the crisis level, Ward 7 Republican Paul Decelles spoke for those with doubts about the cure. Early in the evening, he attempted unsuccessfully to add an item to the agenda that would delay any action until at least September, and called for creation of a special committee to consider whether the proposed occupancy restriction is appropriate and what other measures could help.
After the public forum, when the proposal was up for a vote, Decelles offered an amendment to strike the new language and raised the issue again. He suggested that the committee include representatives from the council, Planning Commission and Police Department, as well as residents, landlords, the Office of Code Enforcement, the Department of Planning and Zoning, a City Attorney, and the Community and Economic Development Office.
Independent Karen Paul countered that she trusts the Ordinance Committee to create such a group if it appears necessary. As the discussion proceeds, she added, it should also consider any “displacement” that may result and whether restricting occupancy will have an impact on affordable housing.
“Let’s make sure it’s the right step,” warned Ward 4 Democrat David Hartnett. “Sometimes we’ve made up our minds and not heard from everyone.”
In a brief comment Miro Weinberger, the city’s new mayor and a housing developer himself, said he is “sympathetic to the residents’ perspective” and linked the problem to high rents and a general housing shortage.
Board President Joan Shannon, who co-sponsored the proposal with Tracy, noted that increased enrollment at the University of Vermont appeared to be extending the same problems to the city’s South End, “in places where we have never had these problems before.”
That echoed an earlier criticism from a member of the public that it was irresponsible for UVM to grow by an estimated 42 percent “without thinking about where these students might live.”
City government is about to negotiate a new memo of understanding with the university covering housing, traffic, parking, public services and taxes. This will replace two agreements that expire in two months. But the process could be delayed since the school’s new president, legal scholar Tom Sullivan, will not begin work until July 15.
In February, the council adopted a resolution to guide the administration’s negotiations. The priority list includes a commitment by UVM to house 75 percent of undergraduates on campus.
Mindful of the problems the ordinance change is supposed to address Adrian said at the time that that school “needs to spend more on creating more student housing. The rest is window dressing.”