Burlington mayor seeks to end homelessness, build 1,250 apartments in 5 years

Supporters of residents of the Sears Lane encampment in Burlington gather at the camp on Oct. 26. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Less than one week after clearing the Sears Lane encampment, Mayor Miro Weinberger announced a slew of initiatives Thursday that he believes will extinguish homelessness in Vermont’s largest city.

The plan, which seeks to double the city’s housing production in the next five years, involves spending at least $5 million in federal funds acquired through the American Rescue Plan Act, as well as making adjustments to the city’s zoning ordinance to allow for more residential construction. 

“Our goal should not simply be just to reduce homelessness. It must be to end it,” Weinberger said at a press conference outside City Hall. “I’m sure this will sound like an unachievable goal to some. … It doesn’t have to be.”

Weinberger’s plan sets out 10 initiatives to spur housing development and curtail homelessness.

Some of those measures will occur within the next year. Weinberger soon plans to appoint a “Special Assistant to End Homelessness” to his administration and set up a low-barrier facility next winter where those without housing can live in “shelter pods” on city-approved property.

“We’re not going to have this solved by next summer. There are going to continue to be the kind of pressures that we saw this past season,” Weinberger said. 

Other parts of the plan will take longer to complete, such as a series of amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance. 

Some of those zoning changes would put a large swath of the South End under mixed-use zoning guidelines, meaning it could be developed for apartments and houses. As part of Thursday’s announcement, the city released an agreement with neighborhood stakeholders endorsing the concept of an “Enterprise-Innovation District” that would transform empty spaces and parking lots into housing. 

Weinberger also hopes to reduce the student-driven demand on Burlington apartments by rezoning the University of Vermont’s Trinity Campus. School officials plan to announce their goal to construct more dorms on the Colchester Avenue property in January, he said. 

Of the 1,250 residential units the city hopes to add in the next five years, about one quarter will be deemed “permanently affordable,” according to the plan. But even an increase in market-rate units would help lower housing prices across the board, Weinberger said, as the city battles a roughly 1% vacancy rate. 

Still, affordable housing has become more costly to build during the pandemic. The price and availability of construction materials has risen with the advent of supply chain issues — something Weinberger called a “threat” to the city’s housing production goals. 

The state has tried to stem that problem by subsidizing loans and materials costs, said Michael Monte, chief executive officer for the Champlain Housing Trust, who also appeared at the press conference.  

This is not the first time Burlington has declared a plan to end homelessness. The city joined “Built for Zero,” a coalition of cities that have committed to eliminating homelessness, in 2018, according to Community Solutions, the nonprofit that runs “Built for Zero.”

Weinberger acknowledged as much Thursday but said because of the windfall of federal money, this time could see more progress toward the city’s past goal. 

“Burlington probably has benefited from more federal affordable housing dollars than any city of its size in the country,” the mayor said, crediting that superlative to the influence held by Vermont’s congressional delegation. 

Two other cities in New England — Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut — have also committed to eradicating homelessness in their borders, according to Community Solutions. 

Weinberger acknowledged that his decision to introduce the housing goals now was influenced in part by the outcry following his order for the Sears Lane encampment to close.

“Out of that very unfortunate situation, maybe something good can come out of it, if it can propel and accelerate progress,” Weinberger told reporters. 

To make the housing goals work will require the cooperation of the City Council, Weinberger said. 

Councilor Sarah Carpenter, D-Ward 4, joined Weinberger at the press conference and urged other cities and towns in Chittenden County to follow Burlington’s example and add more affordable housing.

“You own part of the problem, even if they drift downtown to our community,” Carpenter said. “And as we try to expand housing, you’re part of the solution too.”

While the mayor has sparred with Progressive councilors in recent debates about homelessness, Councilor Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, said they expected their caucus to have an appetite for enacting the mayor’s plan. 

One issue might come with how the city defines “permanently affordable.” 

“I think the city needs to prioritize putting money towards capping rental units at 30% of people’s income,” Magee said in an interview with VTDigger following the mayor’s press conference. “Affordability isn’t really affordable for a lot of people.”

Councilors are slated to discuss one move that some say will increase the city’s housing stock at their Dec. 20 meeting: short-term rentals. Councilors in both parties agree that regulating who can register properties such as Airbnbs would make more housing available for long-term residents, though the proposal has vocal opposition from owners of short-term rentals. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a portion of Weinberger’s plan. Of the 1,250 residential units the city hopes to add in the next five years, one quarter will be deemed “permanently affordable,” according to the plan. 

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Burlington reporter Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: [email protected]

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