Housing becomes flashpoint in Burlington’s East District city council race

From left to right, Dina John, Maea Brandt and Jake Schumann are seeking to fill Burlington's East District city council seat. Courtesy photos

In the upcoming special election to fill the East District city council seat in Burlington, all three candidates agree on one thing: Housing is a major problem in the city.

They diverge when it comes to proposed solutions, however, and each person has come to represent different facets of the housing debate, at times highlighting a landlord-versus-tenant rift.

Democrat Maea Brandt, Progressive Dina John and independent Jake Schumann are vying for the seat in a Dec. 6 special election, prompted by Jack Hanson’s resignation in September.

John has sought to make Brandt’s status as a landlord a liability, contrasting it to her own experience as a tenant in Burlington. Schumann has also detailed his housing struggles in the city.

“I’m not anti-landlord,” said John. “I'm anti-practices that take advantage of tenants.”

John, 22, a Ugandan born in Kenya who arrived in Vermont in 2004, said immigrants are often taken advantage of as renters — which is one reason she has emphasized tenant protections during her campaign. 

She noted that she has worked to advocate for just cause eviction at the state level. Towns across Vermont have pursued efforts to prohibit landlords from declining to renew a lease without giving a reason. 

John, who graduated from the University of Vermont and works at the Chittenden County Superior Court, accused her alma mater of “over-admitting” students, which, she said, impacts how many off-campus students seek housing. 

As a solution, John proposed expanding education and training opportunities for young people interested in the building trades, which, she suggested, would translate to the creation of more affordable housing.

Brandt, 57, has lived in Burlington for 32 years, she said. She is a visual artist and a lecturer at Saint Michael’s College. She said she decided to run after seeing a lack of representation in the East District following Hanson’s resignation and Ali House’s departure from the Ward 8 seat last month.

“So many people I talked to (said) that the East District was underrepresented, especially during a time of very important decision making for the city,” Brandt said.

Brandt also owns three properties in Burlington, two of which have multiple apartments, according to city records. 

John has highlighted a case in which the city’s housing review board ordered Brandt to return a security deposit to a tenant, though she stopped short of leveling a specific criticism. That decision, which followed a Jan. 3 hearing, is listed on the city’s website.

Brandt said she had to return the deposit because of an “administrative error.” In a letter notifying her tenants that she was not returning their security deposit because they were leaving before the end of the lease, she failed to inform them that they had 30 days to appeal to the housing board. 

Brandt said she has been a renter in the past and called the relationship between landlord and tenant “a balance of rights and responsibilities.” The tenants in her January housing board case “ran out on their responsibility,” she said, “but then ultimately, I was the one who didn't put that sentence in there. So, I believe in the housing board.”

Brandt said she bought her rental properties as a way to generate income so she could spend time with her small children. “And so buying a property seemed like a good investment,” Brandt said. “And it was also literally an investment in Burlington.”

Brandt said that while Burlington has had housing problems for a long time, the situation has more recently become “dire,” evidenced by low vacancy rates. She echoed John’s point that UVM students are increasingly flooding the rental market.

“I think the city council needs to recognize that creative solutions must start soon,” Brandt said. She mentioned UVM’s proposed Trinity Campus development, saying she supports the project and, in general, would like to see denser housing development, with the caveat that it be “thought-out and planned.”

“For city council to help direct this step into the future for Burlington is absolutely crucial,” she said.

Schumann, 31, who is running as an independent after unsuccessfully seeking the endorsement of both the Democratic and Progressive parties, acknowledged the odds aren’t in his favor.

“I honestly don’t know how good my chances are of winning this race,” he said. “But I think it's a good test. And I think if it does play out like that, like I get almost no votes because I don't have a party affiliation, that will be interesting to me.”

He has emphasized that “housing is a human right” in his campaign. “I think when people have these properties that they look at as investment properties, and they look at the money that's coming in from the property, it causes them to lose sight of the human rights that they are guaranteeing to their renter by renting this property to them.”

Schumann said he has the distinction of currently being both a property owner and renter. He owns a piece of land near the mouth of the Winooski River in the New North End. He tried to live in a tiny home on the site, but the city restricts those types of houses, forcing him to leave.

Schumann said he has a good relationship with the landlord of the apartment where he now lives, but said that just sending money on time and not causing problems “is a dynamic we have to break down” and proposed a progressive tax on rental profits.

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Patrick Crowley

About Patrick

Patrick Crowley is VTDigger's Burlington Reporter. Previously, he has worked for the Brattleboro Reformer and wrote as a freelance reporter in Ventura County, California. Patrick is a musician and volunteers as a firefighter and advanced EMT.

Email: pcrowley@vtdigger.org

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