Housing Reporting

COALITION AIMS TO RAMP UP HOUSING GROWTH IN CHITTENDEN COUNTY

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Author’s note: This story was originally printed in the Vermont Cynic on June 27, 2017.

SOUTH BURLINGTON — A new collaborative initiative aims to help build 3,500 housing units in the next five years in Chittenden County, where communities and advocates have long expressed a need.
Members of local and state government as well as businesses and housing nonprofits gathered Monday to announce their Building Homes Together initiative.

“Every community (in Chittenden County) needs to up its game,” said Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger on Monday. “It requires different municipalities coming together.”

Dozens attended the event in South Burlington, including state officials and representatives of cities and towns across Chittenden County.

In addition to pursuing the housing goal, the coalition will assist with infrastructure to encourage developers to build in nonrural areas of the county, said Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for Champlain Housing Trust.

Over the past five years, Chittenden County has added on average 450 housing units a year. Meeting the coalition’s goal would require an increase of 250 units a year.

Champlain Housing Trust CEO Brenda Torpy said the idea is that 20 percent of the new units, or 700, come from nonprofit housing organizations.

For nonprofits to build that much housing, the county will need around $65 million to $70 million in capital from public sources and private investments with below-market interest, Donnelly said.

The initiative grew out of discussions involving Champlain Housing Trust, Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission and Housing Vermont on how to address countywide housing issues.

The organizations were quickly joined by local and state government officials, Donnelly said.

This is the first time a coalition of this sort has committed to combining private and public sectors to make this happen, he said.

“The coalition will allow for a collective effort to address a regional issue,” Weinberger said.

In Burlington, the cost of housing is frequently raised as an issue. National statistics recently said that 2.2 minimum wage jobs would be needed per household to affordably rent a two-bedroom apartment in the city. Earlier this month, some residents and advocates said part of the reason is that UVM students living off campus have driven up market prices.

But Weinberger said the county needs more than affordable housing. It also needs housing for seniors, environmentally friendly housing, and housing that allows for easy commuting throughout the area by bike or walking, he said.

South Burlington’s city manager, Kevin Dorn, said the need for rental housing has increased as demographics in Chittenden County have shifted to include greater numbers of young people. The coalition plans to address this need by assisting in the creation of housing spaces with both rental and permanent housing options, he said.

Businesses in Chittenden County want to see housing at different affordability levels in order to infuse new energy throughout the business community, Torpy said.

Each city or town has specific and different needs that must be met, Donnelly said.

Colchester Town Manager Dawn Francis said the town needs to change its sewer system if it is to accommodate more units.

Williston is looking to start a housing trust to aid with costs, Donnelly said as an example of individual communities’ needs. The coalition will look to bolster such efforts with small decisions that support each community, he said.

Members of the public interested in participating in the coalition can contact Donnelly at chris@champlainhousingtrust.org.

NEIGHBORS: UVM OFF-CAMPUS HOUSING HAS MADE BURLINGTON UNAFFORDABLE

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Author’s note: This story was originally printed in the Vermont Cynic on Oct. 27, 2016.

BURLINGTON — Keith and Penny Pillsbury have lived on University Terrace for 43 years. When they moved to the downtown Burlington neighborhood near the University of Vermont campus, the single family homes on their street were occupied by families and hospital guests.

Now only students live on University Terrace, and the Pillsburys complain that no one else can afford to live on their street.

Penny Pillsbury recalled one couple with promising careers and two children who were priced out of the neighborhood. The landlord kicked them out to renovate the apartment and so he could charge more for the rental unit. The couple offered to buy the house, but the landlord would not sell it to them, she said. After they realized they could not afford to continue renting, they moved out of state.

Nearly half the properties on University Terrace are now investment properties that are rented to UVM students who bring in more money for landlords over a longer period of time.

“What we have here is a street out of 22 residents only nine are longer term residents on the street and each year, on June 1st, we get all new neighbors,” Keith said.

The Pillsburys are part of Vermont Interfaith Action, a coalition of religious groups based in Burlington. On Monday, members of the coalition and local housing and community groups gathered at the Pillsburys’ house, which is located across the street from the UVM Davis Center, to talk about how the University of Vermont could help to ease the housing crisis in Burlington.

The city’s 2015 Housing Action Plan identifies the construction of new student housing as a step UVM could take to make housing for families more affordable in Burlington.

About 2,200 UVM students choose to live in downtown Burlington each year, according to the plan, and the size of the off-campus student population puts pressure on housing in the rest of the city. Students compete with residents for rentals, driving up rent.

Rita Markley, the director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter, which provides shelter for homeless residents, said many landlords want to make higher profits by renting to students who will pay more for smaller spaces, than a family with one or even two incomes.

Right now, 36 percent of Burlington renters put half or more of their income toward housing, said Erhard Mahnke, the director of the Vermont Affordable Housing coalition. The recommended maximum for housing is one-third of a renter’s income.

Mahnke said that UVM has made some progress to lower the density of students living downtown, but a lot more work needs to be done — and quickly.

The group identified ways that the university could encourage students to remain on campus, including a change that would allow college students 21 or older to drink alcohol on campus.

Lisa Kingsbury, the university’s planning relations manager, said the university houses 62 percent of the student population on campus and that number will increase to 63 percent once construction of new dorms is complete.

“We are doing more than most other public universities,” Kingsbury said.

In the past 12 years, the university has expanded housing at University Heights, the Redstone Lofts and converted an administrative building into dorms, she said. The three buildings have created 1,363 new beds, Kingsbury said.

Focus groups that UVM has conducted with students show that the university’s dry campus is not driving students off campus, Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury said the university recognizes that students who live off-campus are putting pressure on housing costs for the city and has participated in the Neighborhood Revitalization Plan to help address the issue.

The group agreed that off-campus housing is part of a larger rental crisis in Burlington.

“UVM students provide the city with so much vibrancy, we would just like to see more initiative to help with housing,” Markley said.

Markley also said residents want more accountability. Housing agreements between the city and the college have not been moved forward quickly enough, advocates said.

Under the 2015 Housing Plan, the city is to begin discussions with UVM in early 2016 on how to add an additional 900 beds by 2020.

Kingsbury said while no formal discussion or plan has begun at this time, UVM has looked at informal plans to develop 900 beds.

The dorms could be built by a non-affiliated, private developer not directly related to UVM, she said, that would market the housing to students, she said.

Markley said that in the past UVM has made agreements with the city to build more housing, but there has been no follow-through.

Vermont is the 13th most expensive state for renters according to a national report called “Out of Reach.” A two-bedroom apartment in Vermont on average costs $1,099. Vermont renters need to earn $21.13 an hour, or $43,947 a year to keep rental costs for a two-bedroom apartment at 30 percent of their income. The “housing wage” for that same two-bedroom rental in Burlington is $26.08 an hour.

NEW SUNSET ON TAX LOOPHOLE MAY CAUSE SHUTDOWN OF GREEK HOUSES

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Author’s note: This story was originally printed in the Vermont Cynic on Oct. 21, 2015.

Come January 2017, the Greek system at UVM will have to come up with approximately $30,000 a year in order to account for the property tax, said Jonathan Wolff, the association’s legal counsel.

Greek houses have been property tax free for more than 100 years.

Junior Hayden Audy, head of recruitment for UVM’s Alpha Gamma Rho chapter, said he remembers being told that the fraternity may not be able to keep the house with this expense.

“All of the sudden everything changes… your home is ephemeral,” Audy said.

Greek life has been on cam- pus for over 175 years, according to the UVM Fraternity and Sorority website.

In 1906, the state of Vermont passed a law that gave Greek houses tax exempt status because of their philanthropic and academic nature, said Tim King, president of the Greek life alumni association.

Grace Coolidge, the 30th first lady of the United States and member of the University of Vermont class of 1902, was a member of UVM’s Pi Beta Phi Female Fraternity, which later became UVM’s Pi Beta Phi Sorority, according to the White House Historical Association.

In 1931, Coolidge had the Pi Beta Phi house built.

“No one has ever lived in the house but Pi Phi, it is a historical legacy,” said Rachel Hurwitz, president of UVM Pi Beta Phi.

Hurwitz said that the property tax will likely cause the house to shift hands for the first time in its 80-year legacy.

“If this sunset [property tax] comes to pass, which it probably will, we cannot ask any more of our members than we already do, and we will lose our house,” she said.

If this happens, the homes will most likely be bought by either the University of Vermont Greek housing could be taxed or Champlain College, both tax exempt, Wolff said.

The 200 students living in the homes would be displaced and forced into the Burlington housing market, as most are juniors and seniors, he said.

Hurwitz said she feels Greek students are an easy way to get money because they are a group of young people. UVM Greek life raised a total of $140,000

for charity and gave 21,000 hours of community service in the past year, she said.

“It almost feels like we’re being targeted because of our age,” she said. “They think we’re not going to know how to fight to stop it.”

Vermont Senator Tim Ashe said the property tax is simply a way to maintain equity among all property holders and students.

Ashe is a Chittenden County representative who served as the chair of Senate Finance at the time of that the tax was initially proposed in 2014, according to the Vermont State Government website.

He stressed that the tax  is not intended to punish  Greek life, but to create equality between students and other taxpayers.

“If two students live [in] side-by-side buildings, one with a set of Greek letters and one without, one pays property taxes as part of rent and the other does not,” Ashe said.

This means that other students must pay taxes in their rent, while Greek students do not.

Ashe said he was not alone in thinking this — the bill passed the house and the senate with large bipartisan votes.

Greek students provide the community and charities with funds and services in a way other taxpayers do not, King said.

“Each member is required with their membership to complete a certain number of philanthropic hours and maintain a certain GPA,” he said.

According to Hurwitz, taxing Greek houses would add an additional .06 percent to the multibillion dollar Vermont budget.

“The money we raise is ultimately more than the money they would get from us,” she said. ”That just seems like such a loss to the Burlington community for such a small gain.”

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