The only three-way race for a Burlington City Council seat is happening in Ward 1, an eastern section of the city that encompasses most of the University of Vermont and its surrounding streets.
"All three of us are actively door knocking and engaging with constituents and voters. There's a lot of energy and electricity in the ward," said incumbent Sharon Bushor, an independent who has served on the city council for 32 years.
Bushor, a 73-year-old retired medical technician, has often aligned with the Progressive Party but was snubbed in December when it endorsed her challenger — Zoraya Hightower, a 29-year-old environmental and development professional who serves on the city Development Review Board but has never held elected office in Burlington. The third candidate, Democrat Jillian Scannell, is a 22-year-old senior at UVM who is president of the university's Student Government Association.
Each says she is best suited to represent the ward roughly bounded by Willard Street, Main Street, Centennial Woods and the Winooski River. It is home to many student renters, as well as longtime homeowners and renters.
Hightower moved to Burlington four years ago to take a job at Resonance, a global consulting firm. She has a master's degree from Yale and two bachelor's degrees from the University of Tulsa. She would focus on affordable housing, better transit and growing the city housing stock with "smart infill projects that aren't huge."
Her proposals include a landlord registry over and above what is now required under Burlington's minimum housing code enforcement program, which oversees inspection of the city's roughly 10,000 rental units.
Current rules don't have enough teeth to hold landlords accountable when they fail to maintain their properties, Hightower said, and the threat of losing a license to rent a property might help improve standards and give "tenants more rights — and also protection."
File: Courtney Lamdin
Hightower is also proposing a new ordinance that would allow tenants in some cases to arrange for repairs and deduct the tab from their rent. It could help renters who might otherwise go for a week with a broken toilet, and generally improve housing conditions, she said.
"I think a lot of folks in Ward 1 feel that we're losing our housing stock in terms of quality,'' Hightower said. She's a landlord herself, renting out one room in her River Watch condo on Hildred Drive. That gives her a unique perspective among the candidates on the issue. "I think there's a lot to be said for doing it responsibly," Hightower said of acting as a landlord.
One of the more controversial housing issues in Ward 1 is an existing ordinance that limits the number of renters in certain properties to no more than four unrelated adults — with some caveats. The measure was approved in response to quality-of-life concerns about overpacked student apartments, cars parked on lawns, trash and rowdy parties.
While Hightower said she's not a big fan of the ordinance, she would not vote to throw it out without new rules in place to address some of those same issues.
In addition to knocking on all the doors in the ward, Hightower's campaign has organized potlucks and house parties to get the word out. Why should people vote for her?
"I think I am the most likely to bring about change," Hightower said. "I think that I have enough experience to really, like, wrestle with the issues."
She also noted that as a woman of color, she would bring that perspective forward. "I think my opponents are going to keep talking to the same people and coming up with the same solutions, and I think it's time for a slightly more inclusive stance," Hightower said.
Bushor also supports additional licensing for landlords and said she has already been working on an ordinance that she hopes to push forward if reelected. When asked about Hightower's proposal, Bushor suggested hers came first and said, "that's not OK, to come forward and take someone else's initiative."
The current system of inspections and fines is not strict enough, Bushor said. "Licensing would mean, OK, if you ignore the city and you are not working with us, we could pull your license."
She strongly supports the no more than four unrelated occupants ordinance, and noted that it includes a provision to allow renters in some cases to go over the limit of four if they can prove they are a "functional family."
The ordinance "has worked really well," Bushor said. Before it passed "we had structures that had far too many cars, far too much trash." She said a repeal would be "devastating" for Ward 1.
Bushor said she, too, would work for more affordable housing and has long been sensitive to the needs and struggles of working people.
"I don't come from money," said Bushor, explaining that she grew up in Massachusetts, where her father worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy family who didn't compensate him well.
When she graduated from UVM, she was the first person in her family to earn a college degree. She took a job at what is now the UVM Medical Center. "I felt guilty; I was making $20 more a week than my dad," she recalled.
A resident of East Avenue, Bushor has two grown children and one grandchild. She said she has the experience to serve the neighborhood well on the council.
"I know the ward. I have experience. I work well with all parties," she said. "I have brought about some significant policies that have bettered the city and the ward."
Bushor also defended her recent vote in favor of reinvesting funds in Burlington Telecom. Although the measure failed, she saw it as a way to make a limited investment and keep a seat on the board of the formerly city-owned telecom company, which Burlington sold last year after a controversial $17 million bailout a decade prior.
File: Courtney Lamdin
Scannell says she also would have voted to reinvest, while Hightower said she's unsure how she would have voted.
Scannell would also support a repair-and-deduct ordinance and landlord registry, and noted that one of the people she met while out door knocking was a student who showed her the overflowing dumpster behind his rental. "They've been calling the landlord, and the dumpster behind their apartment complex hasn't been changed in over two months," Scannell said.
Like her opponents, Scannell said affordable housing is a key platform. From time to time, housing advocates have proposed that juniors and seniors at UVM be required to live on campus — as are first- and second-year students — to free up off-campus apartments.
Scannell, who lives in an off-campus rental on South Williams Street, would not support that: "I don't think they should be required to live on campus.''
That being said, there should be more opportunities for upperclassmen to live on campus if they choose to, Scannell said. She also pledged to work hard to advance the city's interests in the next round of housing talks between the city and the state university.
"I think that in the upcoming negotiation, if I'm elected to city council, I can be a crucial voice in that room," Scannell said.
An environmental studies major from Rutland, Mass., Scannell worked to help open the new food pantry for students on the UVM campus and said as a city councilor, she would seek solutions to reduce car commuting in and out of the city, among other things.
She has no plans to move out of Burlington after graduation, and if elected, would serve her full term, she said.
"My responsibility would be to the people of Burlington, and I would absolutely stay," Scannell said.
Correction, February 27, 2020: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Hightower's position on the Burlington Telecom reinvestment decision.