Burlington City Council Signs Off on Housing Action Plan | Off Message

Burlington City Council Signs Off on Housing Action Plan


A Champlain College dorm under construction last year - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN
  • File: Matthew Thorsen
  • A Champlain College dorm under construction last year
The Burlington City Council unanimously approved Tuesday night a once-contentious citywide housing plan.

The 22-point plan, which took roughly a year and a half to develop, seeks to address what's often called Burlington's "housing crisis." It begins by outlining the problem: Residents pay, on average, 44 percent of their income on housing because demand has outstripped supply, driving up costs.

The plan has changed since Weinberger first proposed it. The mayor's initial plan drew criticism for glossing over the housing challenges facing low-income residents. The version approved Tuesday repeatedly affirms the city's commitment to affordable housing. Longtime advocate Erhard Mahnke of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition told the council that the plan had "come a long way since its early iteration." He thanked the administration for increasing funding to the city's Housing Trust Fund, which gives grants to organizations to create and preserve housing for low-income people.

Other proposals, meant to encourage the construction of more housing, should interest developers, who've said regulations make Burlington too costly to build in.

The plan entertains the possibility of eliminating minimum parking requirements for downtown developments, changing the building code and reducing zoning and building fees.

A number of proposals involve hiring consultants to study issues before they are decided. But the document does set deadlines, and it charges particular departments with carrying out each point of the plan.  

Unlike earlier versions, the housing action plan also comes out against housing in the South End's Enterprise Zone, echoing a position Weinberger recently adopted in response to strong objections from a group of artists and business owners. 

It also proposes to cut in half the number of students living in neighborhoods by getting local colleges to add 900 more units on their campuses, and, possibly, at one or two downtown locations. And the plan includes strategies for housing homeless residents and senior citizens. 

While the entire council and Weinberger showed a unified front on Tuesday, opinions are likely to diverge when the consultants' reports come in. Councilor Max Tracy, a Progressive, pointed to one potentially divisive issue: Under the plan, the city will hire a consultant to review its inclusionary housing ordinance, which requires large developments to set aside units for low-income residents. "If changes come at the expense of low-income folks I will absolutely be opposing it," Tracy told his fellow councilors. 

In other business, the council approved new regulations on urban agriculture, which include lifting Burlington's long-resented three-chicken limit. It upholds a ban on composting or burying dead animals within city limits, instead requiring that the remains be dropped off, in sealed containers, at a Chittenden Solid Waste District site.

Councilors also agreed to two collective bargaining agreements — one with firefighters and the other with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers (AFSCME), which represents roughly 200 city office workers. The city is still negotiating contracts with two other unions. 

And the council received an update on the severe maintenance problems facing Memorial Auditorium, which hosts events including the winter farmers market and concerts, and is also home to the Generator space and Burlington City Arts center. They plan to make a decision about the building's future early next year.