Burlington’s effort to create a community of “pods” for people experiencing homelessness can move forward as soon as it finds an organization that will manage the site, a city board ruled Tuesday night.
Billed as a necessary response to the staggering rise in homelessness since the pandemic’s onset, the $1.5 million project gained approval from city councilors in March, but needed a permit from the city’s development review board before it could open.
Board members warily extended that permit on Tuesday, adding a caveat to their decision: the city needs to identify an organization that would supervise the community of 30 to 35 residents — something it has been unable to do thus far.
During the meeting, representatives of Mayor Miro Weinberger’s administration balked at the scope of the review board’s deliberations, saying that the body only had the authority to rule on technical matters, such as concerns over lighting and utility systems.
But board members pushed back on that interpretation of their duties, arguing that a managing organization would play a key role in making sure the project adheres to zoning regulations.
“I think it’s appropriate for us if we have concerns about the operational management in order to make sure that we have compliance with traffic, noise, landscaping, these sorts of things,” board member A.J. LaRosa said.
One board member, Caitlin Halpert, took the administration’s point of view, noting that the board does not typically delve into questions of what occupants might lease from an entity permitted by the body.
“That’s not a discussion that we have on other projects, so it doesn’t feel like a fair application of our authority to expect that in this scenario,” Halpert said.
Brian Pine, the city’s development chief and a point person for the project, praised the review board’s decision in an email to VTDigger after the meeting.
“We are pleased with the DRB’s decision to approve the zoning permit for the Elmwood (Avenue) shelter with conditions that we are prepared to meet,” Pine wrote.
City officials have been struggling to find an organization with the bandwidth to manage the pod site for months, saying that a number of large social service organizations in the area — such as the Howard Center, ANEW Place and the Committee on Temporary Shelter — have rejected the city’s requests.
“It's really a crisis about workforce,” Pine told VTDigger last month. “It’s just fear that there's not an ability to recruit and retain workers to do this work.”
That’s not the only obstacle facing the project: supply-chain issues have pushed back the ready date for the pod structures themselves, Pine said.
Despite those hurdles, the city has moved its estimated opening date for the planned community from November to September, according to a letter Weinberger sent board members on Tuesday.
In his letter, Weinberger urged board members to approve the project as soon as possible.
“The proposal before you to build these emergency shelters on Elmwood Avenue takes essential steps to help end chronic homelessness,” said Weinberger, who introduced the pods plan last year as part of his broader plan to end homelessness. “There can be no more delay. The City must act.”
Officials say the pod site would include 25 single-occupancy and five two-person shelters equipped with electricity, heat and air conditioning. The community, situated on a city-owned parking lot at 51 Elmwood Ave. in the Old North End, would rely on communal showers and toilets located in the middle of the lot.
Also in the middle of the lot would sit the “Community Resource Center,” a city-sponsored daytime shelter that offers food and employment assistance to people experiencing homelessness.
Proponents say the pods would give vulnerable people the chance to stabilize their lives for three to six months, and eventually be connected with long-term housing before they leave the community.
The need for more shelter is more pressing than ever, city development staffer Samantha Dunn said at Tuesday night’s meeting. She said 41 people are currently camping around the city because they don’t have housing, and the city’s largest emergency shelter is turning away an average of six potential guests per night.
But neighbors of the site and business leaders say they worry that the Elmwood Avenue location — which is one block from the Church Street Marketplace — would encourage pod residents to engage in undesirable behaviors, such as drug use.
Pine’s team has largely dismissed those concerns and offered a list of rules which residents would be required to follow. As part of those rules, guests would not be allowed inside the pods, smoking would be prohibited and drinking alcohol could only happen inside the pod units.
Board members appeared satisfied with the rules laid out by Pine’s office, but questioned how those rules would be enforced without a management plan, spurring their decision to make the permit’s issuance conditional.
But despite that decision, several members remained uneasy about the pod plan’s likelihood of success.
“Maybe it works out quite well,” board chair Brad Rabinowitz said. “But I think it’s likely that it will have some issues.”