Forum Held To Counter City Housing Plan

May 21, 2015

Burlington City Hall
Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

In Vermont’s largest city, there’s concern over high occupancy and high rents. A forum held in Burlington last night sought to counter and offer alternatives to a plan offered by city officials addressing housing issues there.

The city of Burlington has drafted a Housing Action Plan to address housing affordability and development issues.  It outlines 18 proposals to reduce housing costs and increase the amount of affordable housing, including addressing regulations, student housing and homelessness.

On Wednesday evening, the group Save Open Space Burlington held a People’s Housing Summit to respond to the plan.  Treasurer Charles Simpson says they believe city leaders must look at housing options from a broader perspective.  A top priority, he says, should be the inclusion of open space and the preservation of 32 acres of former Burlington College campus land.   “Open space in large plots plus small vest pocket areas is very important for the liveability of the city. I don’t think the existing plan takes that sufficiently into consideration.  Another area that we take a broader look at would be rather than simply encouraging the addition of new housing units we’re really focused on building neighborhoods and to encourage student cooperative housing. There’s areas where we do not want housing.  The South End is a mix of very active industry. Some obsolete manufacturing plants that have been taken over by artists. The official plans call for moving market rate housing into that area which would gentrify it.”

Simpson says members of the group are also concerned about the way the city’s plan has been crafted.   “The process has been one of bringing in a consultant and coming up with a plan through what’s called neighborhood consultation or public consultation. But the consultation is done in a very limited and framed way and we want to broaden the discussion. We don’t want to have consultants simply tell us these are the questions and do A or B. We want to be able to look outside the box. Maybe we want more mass transit, which the Housing Action Plan does not even discuss.  There’s a much broader conversation that needs to take place.”

Burlington’s City Council President, Progressive Jane Knodell, attended the forum. A professor of economics at the University of Vermont, she worked to draft the Housing Action Plan with the mayor and other council members for a year.
Knodell says Save Open Space Burlington makes some good points regarding housing issues.   “Where I would take some issue with some of the speakers is that I do think we need to build more housing in the city of Burlington. Some people seem to be saying that the housing should be built outside of Burlington.  I didn’t hear a lot of specific recommendations about what to change in the Housing Action Plan.  It was more presenting an alternative vision in which, I think, overall less housing would be built than the Housing Action Plan calls for.”

Knodell notes that while both sides are discussing conceptual aspects to improving Burlington’s housing, in reality, funding may be the major stumbling block.   “My husband got up and he made an important point that I think people didn’t quite get. In order to create affordable housing, that is below market rate housing, you need subsidies from government. And very, very little new money is going into housing from government. So if you want therefore to get more affordable units you have to work in partnership with the private sector.”