Mayor Miro Weinberger Releases Downtown Housing Strategy Report


May 22, 2014
Contact:  Mike Kanarick

Mayor Miro Weinberger Releases Downtown Housing Strategy Report: Report Finds "Affordability Crisis" from Limited Housing Supply, Growing Housing-Wage Gap; Recommends Strategies to Create More Livable, Walkable, Sustainable, Affordable City

Burlington, VT – Mayor Miro Weinberger today released a new housing strategy report that finds an “affordability crisis” caused by a lack of market rate housing – or housing built without subsidy - over the past decade in the City’s downtown.  Increased housing costs in Burlington’s downtown have risen to levels far higher than in “next tier” cities.  The report suggests that, while continuing to support the great work of Burlington’s renowned affordable housing programs and partners, the City embark on a coordinated effort to support downtown living for the full spectrum of residents, including young professionals, families, empty nesters, and seniors.

“For three decades, Burlington has been attempting to solve its affordability problem and has benefitted from the work of some of the country’s leading housing organizations that have made living in Burlington affordable for thousands of people,” said Mayor Weinberger.  “Yet overall, housing remains far more expensive than it should be for the great majority of Burlingtonians.  We can and will do better.  It is time for new strategies that will fix the housing market and build on the successes of our affordable housing groups to create new housing options for all.  And, the same strategies that make Burlington more affordable also will make our great City more livable, walkable, sustainable, and vibrant.”

Key Findings Regarding Burlington Housing Affordability
Principal findings of the Downtown Housing Strategy Report, conducted by HR&A Advisors, Inc., include:

  • The “next tier” cities grew their housing stock two to six times faster than Burlington during the years 2000 to 2012.
  • The average Burlington household spends about 44 percent of its income on housing – a percentage that is substantially higher than the 31 to 34 percent among what the report defines as Burlington’s “next tier” cities, like Portland, OR, Nashville, TN, or Austin, TX, and much higher that what is considered “affordable” in a healthy housing market.
  • Of the roughly 220 units built in the downtown during that timeframe, only 18 were market rentals. 
  • Unlike its “next tier” cities, which saw growth in the percentage of young professional households, Burlington’s percentage of such households decreased by 10 percent during the years 2000 to 2012.
  • New households have grown by more than 10 percent regionally, but by less than three percent in the City of Burlington during the years 2002 to 2013 – and the downtown fares even worse.  

“For all its dynamism and creativity, Burlington is in danger of missing the downtown housing renaissance that is transforming America’s progressive cities in response to increasing demand for more vibrant, walkable communities,” said Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) Director Peter Owens. “Thoughtful analysis of our housing shortage and strategic development of existing infill sites that the Mayor has prioritized will help address affordability issues and put Burlington on a more equitable and accessible path in the years ahead.”

CEDO Assistant Director for Housing Brian Pine added, “Growing demand and lagging supply have resulted in a highly competitive market – and a one percent vacancy rate – that leads to rents escalating to the point where housing costs far exceed a reasonable share of income. This hurts everyone, and as a result, we continue to lose young professionals and families from our urban downtown neighborhoods and further limit options for our most vulnerable citizens.”

Strategies Recommended in Report
The report recommends five strategies to address the lack of market rate development in Burlington’s downtown:

  1. Prioritize opportunities for infill housing sites.  Infill sites are spaces, like surface parking lots, in existing neighborhoods that can be transformed into new housing.
  2. Free up existing housing through the strategic development of new, well-managed downtown student housing.
  3. Create economic incentives to increase the production of multi-family housing.
  4. Adopt land-use policies that encourage diverse housing development, and in particular Form Based Code zoning reform – which was also recommended in Burlington’s award-winning planBTV.
  5. Engage regional and state partners around housing strategies to grow the regional economy.

According to the report, approximately 6,000 students attending the University of Vermont, Champlain College, or other higher education institutions in Burlington depend on off-campus housing.  This increases the competition for the limited housing stock available in the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.  The development of new, well-managed downtown student housing offers an opportunity not only to increase the total number of housing units available in the downtowns, but also to free up neighborhood housing for single and multi-family use.

“As Chair of the Community Development and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee of the City Council, I look forward to a robust public discussion of this report, and the development of strategies that will create more housing opportunity for people of all income levels, household type, race, and ethnicity,” said City Councilor Jane Knodell.  “As we address the shortfall in housing availability in Burlington, we must at the same time create truly inclusive, diverse communities downtown and throughout the City.”

"UVM supports adding new housing for students and other Burlington residents to a very challenging rental market," said Tom Gustafson, UVM Vice President, University Relations and Administration. "The University would like there to be more options for safe and affordable housing for students when they move off campus. Contrary to the view held by some that all student renters can afford the relatively high rents in Burlington, many students struggle to find a decent and moderately-priced place to live.  New downtown housing will help provide diverse housing options for students and other renters, and will enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods by helping restore a balance of renters and owners."

Beyond student competition for housing, expanding the range of housing options has positive effects for employers across the City of Burlington.

“Unfortunately, the lack of affordable housing in Burlington continues to surface as a more significant challenge to our recruiting and retention efforts at Burton,” said Justin Worthley, Vice President, Human Resources, Burton Snowboards. “Housing availability and pricing are obstacles in our hiring and relocation discussions because the cost of living here is the same or higher than many major metro markets in the US. We also regularly hear from current employees about the impact the high cost of housing has on their overall earnings, including the ability to build careers and families here in the greater Burlington area. We fully support all efforts by the City to accelerate the development of more affordable housing options.”

Increasing the amount of market rate housing in Burlington also has positive consequences for the affordable housing community.

“This tight housing market and low vacancy rate drive up costs for everyone and put rental housing completely out of reach for lower wage and single earner households,” said Brenda Torpy, Chief Executive Officer, Champlain Housing Trust.    

Rita Markley, Executive Director, Committee on Temporary Shelter, added:  “The strategies we’ve used in the past clearly haven’t addressed the need; it’s time for this kind of new approach, one that engages all sectors of the housing market to increase supply.  That’s the only way we’ll be able to ease the impossibly tight rental market.”

Failure to grow housing options in Vermont’s most compact, walkable city center counteracts three decades of statewide efforts promoting strong downtowns.  It also undermines the widely shared desire for a more vibrant, livable, walk and bike-friendly City revealed by Burlington’s own planBTV, which was unanimously adopted by the City Council in June 2013.  

According to Greg Marchildon, AARP-VT State Director, “Quality housing that is affordable, accessible, and close to businesses and services is a fundamental component of a livable community.  Limited housing options and high rents drive older residents out of town and away from those services and neighborhoods they rely on to stay healthy and engaged in the community.  This report highlights the need to take action to create more downtown housing and enable residents to age in place instead of leaving Burlington.  AARP fully supports the recommendations outlined in this report.”

Efforts to increase market rate housing supply also could reduce automobile use and commuting time.  That emphasis on active transportation has positive impacts for community health, environmental quality, and social equity. 

“Expanding downtown housing options greatly expands the demand and opportunity for making Burlington a world-class active transportation community,” said Emily Boedecker, Executive Director, Local Motion.  “Across the socioeconomic spectrum, residents are attracted by walking and biking infrastructure that can get them where they want to go – to jobs, shops, school, local food, fun, and recreation.”

Kate McCarthy, Sustainable Communities Program Director, Vermont National Resources Council, emphasized the environmental impacts of increased housing concentrated in the downtown core, stating:  "Having affordable, appealing housing choices in our downtowns and villages is good for the environment, and not just because it helps take development pressure off our farm and forest lands: Smart growth housing development also provides more opportunities to save energy by walking, biking, and using transit – an important step towards reducing our carbon footprints and tackling climate change."

Heather Danis, District Director for the Vermont Department of Health, focused on the health benefits associated with more housing options, stating: “While Burlington is known for being a healthy city, the bounty of good health is not shared equally by all. Too many residents, especially those with lower incomes and education levels, and residents identifying as a racial or ethnic minority, experience poorer health outcomes that are largely preventable. Health starts where we live, learn, work, and play. Livable downtowns have the potential to create multiple health benefits—increased walking and biking, improved access to services, decreased dependence on automobiles, and increased social connectedness, to name a few.”

Jason Williams, Senior Government Relations Strategist, Fletcher Allen Health Care, noted:  “Fletcher Allen benefits from a strong and vibrant City of Burlington.  We support opportunities to increase housing within the City for several reasons.  It will allow our employees to live closer to their work, which will contribute to a healthier and more walkable – and therefore, sustainable – environment.  It hopefully will improve the overall affordability of housing in Burlington and the region, which will help not only our employees, but also the patients we see every day who struggle to secure safe and affordable housing.  We look forward to collaborating with the City as they continue to work on this important issue.”

“The regional Environment-Community-Opportunity-Sustainability (ECOS) Plan and Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy identified the lack of housing as a major barrier for employee recruitment and a major issue affecting the affordability of living here,” noted Charlie Baker, Executive Director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC).  “Implementing the recommendations of this study will be a very positive step in achieving the goals of the ECOS Plan and the City’s Plan for 80 percent of new development in areas planned for the growth.  CCRPC will continue to support these efforts in coordination with the state and other municipalities in our region.”

Next Steps – Public Hearing + Housing Action Plan in Fall 2014
Mayor Weinberger and CEDO staff have arranged for a public hearing on Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 7:00pm in City Hall’s Contois Auditorium to solicit feedback and comment on the HR&A study.  The feedback will be used to develop a strategic housing plan in consultation with stakeholders, including the affordable housing community, the active transportation community, local employers, AARP, our major institutions, the development community, Preservation Burlington, and environmental groups.  CEDO staff will incorporate the report findings and public comments into a Housing Action Plan.  A draft of the plan will be presented for public comment at a second public meeting in early September, with the goal of having the plan adopted by full City Council in fall 2014. 


* Please click here to view HR&A “City of Burlington, Vermont: Downtown Housing Strategy Report.”


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