Jackie McGrath: Changing the tax system could help solve Burlington housing woes

This commentary is by Jackie McGrath, who lives in Burlington and is a senior at the University of Vermont, majoring in environmental studies. 

Housing is one of the most important human needs, yet it’s nearly impossible to find an affordable apartment recently. 

Vermont rental vacancy rates are now the lowest in the country. In 2019, Burlington and Winooski’s rental apartment vacancy rate was at 1.8% and it’s only been getting worse. 

Walking through the Old North End, all you see are single-family homes, caving in on themselves and chipping lead paint. Two residents have been looking for an apartment in the area for the past three months and haven’t been able to sign a lease before someone else has done so. 

In downtown Burlington, there are plenty of abandoned buildings, like the Burlington Memorial Auditorium, that have sat unoccupied for the past six years. Meanwhile, wealthy residents and nonlocal investors, instead, see Burlington as a “hot market,” ripe for double-digit returns on land investments. 

In 2021 alone, the share of Vermont homes bought by investors more than doubled.  

Our proposed solution to this urgent issue is land value taxation. It’s an alternative to traditional property tax systems, where instead of taxing any improvements made to a property, the tax is imposed on the underlying value of the land. 

Doing so will deter speculators who typically buy up cheap land and hold on to it until it is valuable without creating any improvements to the property. By imposing a land value tax, the city can incentivize landowners in high-value areas, like downtown Burlington, to build more housing in order to pay off these higher taxes, while also granting land-efficient (and most often low-income) housing a tax break. 

Beyond its compelling theoretical justification, land value taxation has a long history of success across many Pennsylvania cities and towns. The number of vacant structures in Harrisburg declined from over 4,200 in 1982 to under 500 by 2001. In Allentown, 70% of residential parcels saw a tax decrease

Burlington could join these towns in making both buildings and land less expensive, thereby making housing more affordable while fostering business growth and employment. 

We will be presenting this issue to the city’s Community Development and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee this month and hope you will show your support for our initiative by signing this petition.


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