Mayor Miro Weinberger will push for major zoning changes in Burlington's South End and beyond in a bid to ease the housing crisis, he announced Thursday.
Weinberger released a 10-point plan to open areas of the city to builders. The goal is to roughly double the rate of development to enable construction of 1,250 more housing units by 2027.
“Every neighborhood in the city has the potential to welcome many more households than they do today, while becoming even stronger and more appealing places to live than they are today,” Weinberger said at a press conference outside City Hall.
In particular, Weinberger wants to open the door to mixed-use development in a portion of the South End where housing is currently prohibited. A 2015 attempt to rezone the South End failed after artists and residents vigorously opposed it over fears of gentrification. Developer Russ Scully revived the prospect earlier this year. He hopes to build a mixed-use project where a parking lot currently exists, Seven Days reported last month.
The mayor also plans to use $1 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds to reduce homelessness as part of a goal to eradicate it by 2025. Weinberger is proposing to use the American Rescue Plan Act funds to hire a city staffer dedicated to the homelessness problem, bolster a “coordinated entry” program in Chittenden County that places individuals in apartments, and invest in 30 or so low-barrier “shelter pods.” By partnering with affordable housing developers, the city hopes to add 78 apartments for formerly homeless individuals in the coming years.
The city, as well as the state, has been working to eliminate homelessness for a number of years. With this latest effort, Weinberger said, the city is “recommitting ourselves to that goal and resourcing this effort properly so that, this time, it does fully succeed.”
Weinberger, who was first elected in 2012, has consistently campaigned on a belief that the root of Burlington’s high housing costs is a lack of supply that has been, as he said again Thursday, “created in large part by well-intended but misguided state and local land-use policy that makes it way too hard, way too expensive, and way too time consuming to build homes.”
Between 2016-2020, Burlington added 779 new housing units, all but 19 of which are in multifamily buildings, according to Building Homes Together campaign, a public-private coalition led by the Champlain Housing Trust, Evernorth and the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. Of those, about 24 percent were considered “affordable” housing.
Countywide, the number of new units constructed during the same period surpassed the coalition’s goal of 3,500. But the 536 new affordable units came up substantially short of the 700 the campaign sought.
Weinberger’s 1,250-unit target makes up one-quarter of the county goal. He wants at least 312 of the new units to be permanently affordable.
Champlain Housing Trust CEO Michael Monte said the organization has roughly 700 new units in various stages of development across Chittenden County. About one-third of the planned units are in Burlington and include affordable apartments, affordable owner-occupied homes, and housing for the formerly homeless.
A new housing district in the South End represents one of the largest opportunities for further construction. The mayor on Thursday said the city had secured a memorandum of understanding with developers, including Scully and the Champlain Housing Trust, and South End stakeholders, including the South End Arts and Business Association, to jointly solicit input for the new “enterprise innovation district.”
The groups hope to put forward a zoning proposal to the Burlington Planning Commission in March 2022, the document states.
The envisioned district, Monte said at Thursday’s press conference, “creates, I think, a balance between the needs of the folks and the industries that have been there for decades — the artists, the makers — and with affordable housing, as well, as a great need for our community.”
Weinberger also announced the University of Vermont is looking to build more student housing on the former Trinity College campus on Colchester Avenue. His administration’s housing action plan calls for zoning changes to the Trinity campus to enable the project, which Weinberger said would ease the pressure UVM students place on the city’s broader housing market.
But to rapidly increase available housing, the city will have to look for opportunities in all neighborhoods, Weinberger said. He’s pushing for so-called “missing middle housing,” a term that refers to smaller multi-unit projects in low-rise residential neighborhoods. Projects of this scale are prohibited in many residential zoning districts.
Weinberger contended that zoning reforms would allow for new developments that still “reflect the character of these beloved parts of the city.”
City Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3), who observed Weinberger’s event, said he needed to hear more about the proposed zoning changes and developments, particularly in the South End.
“While I’m supportive of us making strides toward building more units and upzoning certain areas, I want to make sure that we’re maintaining the character of our neighborhoods,” he said.
More broadly, Magee said addressing the twin problems of affordable housing and homelessness will require intervention beyond what Weinberger proposed.
“If we don’t talk seriously about how workers aren’t earning enough money to live in our city, we are going to continue to have a housing crisis that outpaces our ability to meet those needs,” he said.
Magee, who sharply criticized the Sears Lane evictions, said ending homelessness also demands new investments in mental health care and substance abuse treatment, as well as no-barrier shelter options.