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Interfaith Coalition Presses City and UVM on Housing Crisis

Local Matters


Published June 28, 2006 at 5:18 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- At age 62, Richard Terrance Jeroloman should be looking for a nice, quiet place to retire. Instead, he's looking for a nice, quiet place to park his van each night where it won't get towed while he sleeps inside.

Jeroloman is a Burlington retiree with no pension and a monthly income of only $150. He now qualifies for senior housing but is facing a two-year wait. As a result, his only address is the Ford Econoline van he's been living in since the winter of 2004. For months, he spent his nights parked in the public garage next to the Church Street Marketplace -- that is, until the police kicked him out. For the last year, he's parked wherever he could find a spot in the Old North End. On one recent night, Jeroloman said, he saw four other vans parked on the same block, also with people camped inside.

Jeroloman was one of about 250 people who showed up for last week's town meeting-style discussion on Burlington's affordable- housing crisis. The meeting, held at the First Unitarian Universalist Society on Pearl Street, was organized by Vermont Interfaith Action, a federation of nine religious congregations representing 2000 families in the Burlington area. VIA's goal was to urge city officials and representatives from the University of Vermont to take a more proactive and urgent approach in addressing the city's housing crisis, and to commit to a speedy timetable for future meetings and new housing projects.

As VIA member David Conrad outlined the findings of his research, it was evident that the scope of Burlington's housing crisis isn't affecting only seniors but spans the demographic spectrum -- from children and low-income families to people transitioning out of prison; from moderate-income workers employed in the downtown retail district to the very elderly.

A home is considered "affordable" if its residents spend no more than 30 percent of their household income on rent or a mortgage. By that standard, about half of Burlington residents live beyond their housing means. And from all evidence, the problem is getting worse. In 2005, Burlington's shelters served 30 percent more people than the year before, reflecting an alarming upward trend in homelessness over the last five years.

"There are now over 30 homeless families, with 81 children, living in decrepit motels because they can't find housing they can afford," Conrad said. "That's 30 families too many."

VIA's goals, Conrad explained, are threefold. First, the group has launched a "YIMBY" drive -- or "Yes In My Back Yard" public education campaign, to convince local residents to be more accepting and supportive of new affordable housing projects. Second, VIA announced plans to work on countrywide solutions that reach beyond the city's borders. Finally, VIA called on religious leaders of all denominations to consider using religious-owned properties to develop new affordable housing units.

Conrad then spelled out the "first steps" that VIA has endorsed to ensure that Burlington "remains a city for all." First, the group is asking city council and the mayor's office to close a loophole in the inclusionary zoning ordinance. That ordinance requires developers to build a certain percentage of affordable housing units as part of any market-rate housing project. However, a loophole in the law permits developers to opt out of building the affordable units by paying into a "housing trust fund" -- at a rate of $12,000 per unit.

So, for example, when the 32 luxury condos in the Westlake project at the corner of Cherry and Battery were approved by the city, the inclusionary zoning ordinance would have required that 13 of those units be affordable. But the loophole allowed the developer to build only eight, and pay $60,000 for the remaining five.

"Twelve thousand dollars is just a fraction -- about 10 percent -- of the cost of building one affordable housing unit," Conrad said. "We don't need more $775,000 condos in Burlington. We need more decent housing for working people."

Brian Pine is assistant director of housing for the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO). Pine explained to the audience that while he personally supports closing the inclusionary zoning loophole, he doesn't believe such a move would withstand a legal challenge. Pine pointed out that the ordinance has been a successful mechanism for developing reasonably priced housing; in the 16 years since it was enacted, only two developers have taken advantage of the loophole.

Next, VIA member Sally Conrad asked CEDO Director Michael Monte if the city would consider building affordable housing on city-owned property at Browns Court. She also called on Monte to recommend that at least 75 percent of those units be affordable, and that at least one-quarter be rented to very low-income families.

For his part, Monte had no problem ensuring that "some portion" of those units would be occupied by very low-income families, though he couldn't commit to a specific percentage or number without first consulting the Burlington Community Land Trust, one of the partners in that project. Monte was equally vague when pressed for a time frame for breaking ground on the Browns Court project, though he said it would "likely" occur before September 15.

VIA then asked Mayor Bob Kiss to convene a meeting of the various stakeholders on using a city-owned parking lot on Elmwood Avenue as another site for an affordable housing project. The lot is currently used for parking by the federal courthouse and CCV. While Kiss was amenable to the idea of such a meeting, he said that a September 15 deadline was "probably not realistic."

Finally, VIA asked UVM Vice President Tom Gustafson if he would commit to a new study on the impact of the university on Burlington's rental market. VIA noted that the last study of its kind was done in 1998, and the data is outdated. VIA is concerned about UVM's ambitious goal of enrolling 9400 students by 2013, as well as a new, campus-wide policy that will prohibit alcohol in all dorms.

While Gustafson was open to the idea of such a study, he said it makes more sense to first sit down with all the interested stakeholders and hash out what the parameters of such a study should be.

"Will I commit to a study? Not yet," Gustafson added. "Will I commit to sitting down and talking about these issues and outlining the challenges and then deciding what to do? Absolutely."

Not content to accept such an open-ended commitment, VIA pressed Gustafson to convene that meeting within the next three weeks. He agreed.