BURLINGTON — The city’s plan to house people experiencing homelessness in “pods” on an Old North End parking lot is off to a rocky start.
Officials aimed to erect the community of 30 modular structures that can each house one to two individuals by July 1, when the state’s motel housing program is set to tighten its requirements and the demand for emergency shelters will increase.
But last month, supply chain issues and a dearth of organizations applying to manage the site delayed that launch date until late summer. Now, after an unexpected snag in the permitting process this week, the proposed community on Elmwood Avenue won’t open until at least November, Brian Pine, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Office, said in an interview.
“It’ll delay us by two months,” Pine said of this week’s permitting decision. “In a best-case scenario.”
Meanwhile, as the shelter’s opening date gets extended month by month, the clock is ticking. City councilors authorized the plan through June 2025, and residents are supposed to occupy a pod for about three to six months at a time.
The pod plan had a chance to advance this week when the city’s Development Review Board held a public hearing on the proposal (a requirement for any project that receives a permit from the body). But instead of issuing a permit on Tuesday evening, the board paused the hearing and agreed to resume it on July 5, so members could listen to more testimony from the several critics and handful of supporters who tuned into the virtual meeting.
Pine’s office is asking the review board to finish the hearing at a sooner date, he said, but there’s no guarantee the quasi-judicial body will grant the city’s request.
Even if the pods earn a permit, however, the site will still need to be managed around the clock in order to open. And months after pitching the idea, Pine’s office has yet to find a willing partner to supervise the community.
Why aren’t local social service organizations bidding on the opportunity to run the shelter?
“It's really a crisis about workforce,” Pine told VTDigger. “It’s just fear that there's not an ability to recruit and retain workers to do this work.”
Pine said his office has been turned down by local nonprofit agencies such as the Howard Center and Champlain Housing Trust because they don’t have the bandwidth to take on new projects. Two local organizations that already run emergency shelters, the Committee on Temporary Shelter and ANEW Place, haven’t bid because they’re going through a change in leadership.
When asked if the difficult process to secure management for the site could squash the city’s plan, Pine said no. He said his office is also exploring a collaborative management plan between organizations.
“The details remain to be worked out, but we're not giving up,” he said. “We're just getting more creative every day trying to find a solution.”
In one sign of progress for the city, the Planning Commission advanced a proposal from Pine’s office this month that would make it easier to establish new emergency shelters similar to the community. City officials argued the measure would help Burlington react swiftly if it faced a sudden influx of people without housing, as it has during the pandemic.
Instead of requiring new emergency shelters to be approved by the Development Review Board, the proposal would amend the city’s zoning ordinance so that shelters only need “administrative approval,” where city zoning staff certify that a project meets all zoning rules.
In a 4-3 vote at their May 10 meeting, planning commissioners slotted the proposal for a public hearing, after which the body would vote again on the measure. If it’s recommended by the commission, the amendment would go before the City Council, where it would face multiple votes and another public hearing.
Pine told VTDigger the zoning change isn’t meant to usher through the pod project, because the measure would take too long to pass. Instead, he said, it’s a product of the realization that, if the city needed to quickly house people after, say, a natural disaster, it could be bogged down by regulatory hurdles.
“The process is not well suited for responding in a timely manner to an urgent crisis,” Pine said.
But some planning commissioners panned the idea, saying an administrative approval would bar residents from weighing in during a public hearing if they had concerns about a proposed shelter.
Yves Bradley, a commissioner and commercial realtor, criticized the amendment for allowing the city to build emergency shelters in public parks, calling the idea “crazy.”
“This is an experiment,” Bradley said of the pod project. “I don’t want to hear about another one, or another location, until this one has at least a year of success under its belt.”
Although he voted to advance the proposal, commission chair and former Democratic city councilor Andy Montroll expressed reservations about granting a fast track to shelter communities that could exist for years.
“This isn’t really temporary,” Montroll said. “Emergencies come and they go. … If we’re talking about emergency need for if a hurricane comes through or some disaster comes through and we need temporary shelter, sure, that’s one thing. But if we’re talking about a three-year site, that’s something different.”
The pod project’s $1.5 million price tag is being paid for using federal coronavirus relief funds. The City Council unanimously allocated that money from Burlington’s $27 million pot of American Rescue Plan Act money in February.
The pod plan is one element of Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger’s “Plan to End Homelessness,” which also includes the Community Resource Center, a daytime shelter with free food and services for people without housing.
If the pod project gets off the ground, the resource center would move to that site from its current location at the Feeding Chittenden food shelf on North Winooski Avenue, officials say.
In late March, the City Council approved the pod project’s location at 51 Elmwood Ave. with one dissenting vote from New North End independent Mark Barlow.
In the community at large, though, the project has encountered more resistance.
Neighbors to the proposed site spoke out against the project during meetings with Pine’s office and at the review board hearing this week, asserting the pod residents could bring with them crime and unsavory behavior.
In March, the Church Street Marketplace Commission — a city board tasked with stewarding the city’s crown jewel of commerce — shared those concerns, and voted unanimously against the shelter’s location, which is one block away from the vibrant pedestrian mall.
Proponents of the project reject those arguments, saying that a managed community would help residents address the challenging circumstances that have in some cases deprived them of stable housing.
Pine also presented a draft list of rules for community members to the Planning Commission last week. Those rules would bar all use of illegal substances, forbid pod residents from hosting other people in their unit and restrict visitors on the site except from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
In an email to VTDigger last month, acting Police Chief Jon Murad said his department hasn’t seen an uptick in criminal activity near the Community Resource Center’s previous location at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on South Winooski Avenue, one block from Church Street.
“The general consensus among department supervisors has been pretty positive with regard to the (resource center), in that it’s well managed and it gives people a needed place to go,” Murad said in the April 11 email.
A city-sponsored neighborhood group for two precincts in the Old North End — including Ward 3, where the pods would be located — backed the project at a meeting last week.
Before that vote, Pine passionately spoke about the urgency with which he says the project needs to move forward.
“We’re fiddling while Rome is burning,” he said. “We need to do something now.”