As if University of Vermont's outgoing president, Dan Fogel, doesn't have enough on his plate to give him indigestion: On Monday night, members of the 11 religious congregations represented by Vermont Interfaith Action will call out the UVM prez for his failure to deliver on a promise made four years ago to build more affordable housing in Burlington.
And rest assured, those VIA members, more than 3000 strong, will be anything but quiet as church mice.
As Seven Days reported back in June 2006, a broad cross-section of Vermonters in Chittenden County, including seniors, the disabled, low- and moderate-income families and people transitioning back to the community from prison, have a very difficult time finding affordable housing in Burlington. And each fall, that problem is only exacerbated by the Queen City's enormous influx of UVM students.
Housing advocates consider a home "affordable" if its residents spend no more than 30 percent of their household income on the rent or mortgage. By that standard, roughly half of all Burlington residents live beyond their housing means.
Four years ago, some 250 members of VIA showed up at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington to call on UVM to take a more proactive and urgent approach to addressing the city's housing crisis, and commit to a speedy timetable for future meetings and new housing projects.
At the time, city and university officials were already well aware of the problem. In 1998, UVM commissioned an economic study which found that students occupied nearly one in five of the city’s 8100 rental units. At the time, about 2566 UVM students were living off campus — or 90 percent of all students in the rental market.
But even four years ago, that data was already out of date. At the time, VIA called on UVM Vice President Tom Gustafson to commit to a new study on the impact of the university on Burlington's rental market, expressing concerned about UVM's stated goal of enrolling 9400 students by 2013. At the time, Gustafson declined to make any such commitment, though he did agree to sit down and talk about the affordable housing issues with VIA members.
But talk is just about all that's happened to date, VIA charges. Since that initial public meeting, and subsequent ones attended by Fogel himself, UVM has broken no ground on new affordable housing units.
So, on Monday night, June 6, VIA and other community members plan to meet at the College Street Congregational Church from 7 to 8:15 p.m. to hear an updated report on the state of affordable housing in Burlington and what has — or more accurately, hasn't — been done to address the problem.
WIll anyone from UVM even show up tonight? Not likely, say university officials. But a June 3 letter to VIA from Richard Cate, UVM's vice president for finance and administration, explains that because the university is in the process of developing its student, faculty and staff housing master plan, it would be "inappropriate to discuss future plans or make future commitments for faculty/staff housing in a large public setting until that process is complete."
In his three-page letter, expected to be read aloud this evening, Cate acknowledges Fogel's 2007 commitment to pursue the construction of more affordable housing but notes: "As you are well aware, the economic climate across the country and for UVM has changed dramatically since 2007. UVM's resources are very limited at this point in time and consistent with our University mission, our priority is to focus on the housing needs of our students."
Cates goes on to report that, according to the Brooks and Allen 2011 Residential Report, colleges and universities in Chittenden County have added 1581 new beds in the last five years and plan to build another 1300 in the near term. Should all those new beds be built, Cates notes, the total number of beds available will increase by 16 percent. More importantly, he adds, the rate of housing development will outpace the growth in student enrollment, easing some of the pressure on an already tight rental market.
Whether Cates' letter, and not his tush in the chair at the front of the church will assuage the VIA's ire, remains to be seen.