Burlington strategizes ways to add housing stock

A new report identifies underutilized or vacant lots in downtown Burlington, plus private sites, for possible infill to build the city's housing stock in an effort to bring down prices. Courtesy of Downtown Housing Strategy Report by HR&A Advisors.

A new report identifies underutilized or vacant lots in downtown Burlington, plus private sites, for possible infill to build the city’s housing stock in an effort to bring down prices. Courtesy of Downtown Housing Strategy Report by HR&A Advisors.

Scarce housing in Burlington is a crisis not just for low-income residents, according to a new report commissioned by the city. Burlington’s dearth of market-rate — or unsubsidized — housing options is driving up prices for everyone, the report finds.

“As a result, Burlington is now at an inflection point,” according to the recently released Downtown Housing Strategy Report, written by HR&A Associates.

The city can either develop as a vibrant but expensive college town, or choose to integrate more housing in a wider spectrum of price points into broader economic development strategies and become more walkable.

Burlington’s population overall is growing, but more from students and empty nesters, while the number of young and middle-aged residents is down, the report says. And despite the growth in demand, the city’s housing stock has remained static. As a result, prices have only risen with competition.

The city has a 1 percent vacancy rate. Renters must work 1.6 full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, according to estimates from HR&A. A downtown studio rents for more than a two-bedroom unit elsewhere in the city, the report finds.

The irony is that, according to HR&A’s Candace Damon, an affordable housing policy has indirectly contributed to higher costs by stalling housing developments in the jurisdiction.

The main reason rents are high in Burlington is the limited supply, Damon underscored. But additional factors also push housing prices up or bring them down: the length of time to bring a unit to market, available subsidies and guaranteed tenancy, to name a few.

In the report, Damon suggests revisiting one factor in particular that can drive prices and discourage building: inclusionary zoning. The policy requires a certain percentage of housing units in a given development to be “affordable.” To make these projects worth their cost, developers raise rents on other units to recover their investments.

“It is a perfectly reasonable way of trying to create affordable housing, particularly for low- and moderate-income people,” Damon said.

But Burlington is a relatively small community to experiment with inclusionary zoning, Damon said. She suggested exploring inclusionary zoning as a more regional strategy, so one city isn’t left to absorb all of an area’s low- and moderate-income housing needs.

As it stands, despite Burlington’s affordability crisis, “Current market rents are not high enough to support to get anybody to build market rate housing,” Damon said. And that’s part of the reason very little housing stock has been added in recent years.

The neighboring city of South Burlington is considering its own version of inclusionary zoning, which will go before the city council this week, according to Paul Conner, South Burlington’s director of planning and zoning.

In addition to inclusionary zoning policies, Burlington’s latest housing report recommends downtown infill, development along the Pine Street corridor to the south of downtown, more on-campus student housing to relieve pressure on the private market, and incentivizing multi-family housing developments deemed affordable for a wide spectrum of households.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and city planners will hold the first of two public hearings on housing at 7 p.m., Thursday, June 12, in City Hall’s Contois Auditorium to solicit opinions on the study and its recommendations. They plan to develop a strategic action plan by fall.

While Burlington continues to contemplate its future, the city’s workers are residing in neighboring cities. Essex, South Burlington and Winooski all have outpaced Burlington in their development of market-rate housing in the past decade, according to the report.

Now, less than half of Burlington’s workers in the well-paid professional, technical, education and health care sectors actually live in the city. Many of the rest choose commutes over costly rents.

Hilary Niles

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  • Paul Lorenzini

    a)let’s build some projects and be like Chicago!
    b)let’s build some high rises and be like Japan!
    c)let’s build some gulags and be like Marxists!
    d)let real Vemonters own their land!

    d is the correct answer

  • Dave Bellini

    “Many of the rest choose commutes over costly rents. ”
    I’m one of the people that chooses a commute over living in Burlington. It isn’t only the cost of housing; that is a factor. It’s also quality of life. I don’t want to see heroin needles and trash littering the sidewalks and streets. Burlington needs more home ownership and less rental property. “Affordable” is OK but it also has to include RESPONSIBLE. Work on combining the two.

    • Kevin McGrath

      Dave, you are right about the quality of life issues. I have been working for two years to get the Mayor and Bill Ward, the Code Enforcement Director to clean up the neighborhoods and enforce the existing property maintenance codes. Bill Ward just flat out refuses the address the property maintenance issues that plague the city. There are two main reasons why, first, he does not live in the city, he lives in Essex and he does not have live with it a daily basis in his personal life and secondly, the lack property maintenance code enforcement and slum-lording has been the cornerstone of the CEDO/Progressive Housing policies for years. The Progressives wanted a city dominated transient residents and substandard housing in effort to secure their control of the city government, because they know that responsible middle class property owners will never vote for them. No respectable middle class person wants to raise a family in such a disrespectful transient environment that rewards out of state slumlords and punishes responsible property owners with higher property taxes. That is why there is so much garbage and substandard housing plaguing the neighborhoods. Basically, it’s just another mess left by the Kiss administration that the new mayor is left to cleanup. It will take the new mayor years to cleanup all the messes left by the Kiss administration. I have fullest confidence that Miro will eventually make progress on the quality life issues that plague the neighborhoods of Burlington and you can bet that the Progressives will fight him at every step of the way.

  • Lisa Cannon

    I am one of those directly impacted by the outrageously high cost of rental housing in Burlington. My rent in the expensive Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington DC was 25-30% less than what I pay here. Rather than a puff piece about the press conference, your reporting should inform, analyze, and share other opinions, especially the notion that: “Current market rents are not high enough to support to get anybody to build market rate housing.” What WOULD be high enough to satisfy the developers and whose interests/pockets is the city protecting: those of its citizens or real estate developers?

  • Bill Dunnington

    As implied above, this rent problem has lots of components – demand supply, a market made imperfect with attempts to regulate to promote desirable goals like affordability. Of course, the other side is relatively low wages, thin discretionary income, etc and an economy that hasn’t really rebounded like other parts of the US.

    Holding a hearing is fine, but a really good piece of analysis would seem pivotal…and a willingness to follow the data where it leads. Very instructive to look at what’s worked in other places. Vermont does not have a lock on the right answer…..clearly.

  • Tony Redington

    Some cross currents at work. First, population now and in future in the County changes little except to age–Burlington “growth” last decade mostly student not adult households and this fall starts a predicted slow decline–flat at least overall–of students at UVM. Mr. Bellini may commute, but now about 400 commute by Link buses thereby reducing commutes over solo driving by up to $8,000 after tax income enabling paying for higher rents, if needed, and lots of other goods and services. Commuter rail likely around the corner will further decrease driving and increase population in downtown and town center areas, good for Burlington. Yes, to inclusionary zoning, infill housing, micro-apartments (300 to 400 square feet), a state rental subsidy for homeless (cheaper than current costs) combined with construction of units for their use,–and most of all make our downtowns and village centers walkable/bikable which is still a fantasy right now except for the Marketplace.

  • Phyllis North

    This statistic leaves something out: ” Renters must work 1.6 full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, according to estimates from HR&A.” Forty percent of renters are in one-bedroom apartments. How many jobs does on person need to pay for a one-bedroom apartment, on average?

  • Judith McLaughlin

    Born and raised in Burlington, and I have absolutely no interest in ever living there again. Turn every corner and you are accosted by beggers (notice I didn’t say the homeless). Traffic is horrible, because the city refuses to address the issue. Home owners are held hostage by the students (parties, garbage, noise, etc). Burlington’s problem is that it tries to please everyone….so nothing gets done right.

  • David Rogers

    The housing crisis comes from the Universities and the trash problem from open container recycling. These two problems are easily fixable require the consumers of housing to build more and make the city buy closed containers for recycling problem fixed.

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