Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Housing Policy for Burlington and State of Vermont--A Three Pronged Interim Policy Approach

Following discussions and exploration over the past year, I have been working on further policy analysis to seek a “one fits all policy” to deal with the radical changes in the Burlington, Chittenden County, and Vermont housing market. Part of the housing assistance needs involves folding in populations left out of the dominant federal programs particularly lower income senior homeowners as well as acute housing needs of falling through the cracks in the Department of Corrections, the Department of Mental Health, our hospitals, and the obvious needs of the homeless.

The lack of a unifying housing policy at all levels, the need for State/local funding starting with the Governor's Poverty Council recommendation for the $2 a night lodging fee as a funding source, and finally, recognizing the value as well as limitation of current State efforts using non-profit housing agencies—all are summarized in a three part policy which is hereby recommended as a starting point for discussion for all to consider and support.

Below please find a general background piece to the short brief policy, attached.

Prefatory Note:
At two major Burlington housing developments in process--311 apartments in Sinex's Town Center and Cambrian Rise 735 apartments which total over 1,000—not a single homeless person or very low income household receives “affordable housing assistance” (federal very low income limit for a family of three, $37,100).
Any “affordable housing assistance”--30% of household income maximum for  rent—for the homeless and very low income gets drawn almost completely from the existing Vermont pool of federal units. The 20%+ in these two projects of “inclusionary zoning” (IZ) apartments priced--for example at $1,200 monthly for a 2-bedroom--mostly serve middle income households which includes just the upper range of $49,000 to $59,000 income for a family of three in the federal “low income” schedule for Burlington metro area.

(Note $59,000 income is about 80% of the median income for 3-person families, the upper level for federal "affordable housing assistance" [AHA].)

Introduction and Larger Background

Attached please find a draft wording of a three-part universal housing policy, an interim “no regrets” vehicle, which directly addresses a Burlington and State need for an “affordable housing assistance” (AHA) program built around a $2 nightly lodging fee.

The lack of a clear State or Burlington housing policy makes informed discussion very difficult. A policy analyst must scramble to find available key data in a radically changed housing market from even three years ago. The housing market itself and needs change as the housing market emerged from the Great Recession and building began in earnest about 2015 while federal housing dollars stagnation over the past decade now demands Burlington and Vermont state programming to meet unrelenting needs.

At the State level housing needs policies rests on data sources of 2014 and prior. Since that time in Burlington alone boasts about 3,000 apartments built or well into development which expands the rental housing over 30% (for examples over 1,000 units alone in Burlington Town Center and Cambrian Rise). Since 2015 the decades long 1-2% rental vacancy rates suddenly escalated in the City and solidly reside at or above a healthy 3-5% range of the total rental inventory. ( For the data base of current State policies see p 9 footnote 3 )

Basic housing needs in Chittenden County have shifted from a lack of supply of housing and affordability to the single track need for “affordable housing assistance” (AHA). “Affordable housing assistance” means in federal and housing community language a home where rent or ownership costs consume no more than 30% of household income. In Vermont there are 13,000 units of “affordable housing assistance”--about one in six renters benefiting—primarily in the form of federal Section 8, Public Housing and “Housing Choice Vouchers” administered by our State and local housing authorities.

Why is Housing Different?

Housing for Vermont families differs from food and medical care, both entitlements ultimately guaranteed now by federal programs and monies. Housing remains a scramble for limited “affordable housing assistance” (AHA) and the twin need, lack of household protection from loss of housing from changed economic circumstances also provided in “affordable housing assistance,” i.e., a decline in income is matched by a decreased rent. Today there are no significant State and local AHA programs.
The roughly 2,000 on waiting lists today in Chittenden County and Burlington for what assistance is available testifies to that fact that affordable housing assistance is a critical and unaddressed need. More importantly with stagnant incomes for three decades now and cost of housing relatively higher, housing—already the biggest cost in the typical household budget—can no longer be ignored in State and City human service programming. Today a new element is added, the presence of ever increasing numbers of senior homeowners on fixed incomes unable to age in place. Something must be done.

The Dollar Dimensions

The State of Vermont housing programs provide very little AHA. The 13,000 AHA units in Vermont represent a $104 million in federal funds. In 2017 other federal assistance like Community Development Block Grants and homeownership subsidy amounted to $8.6 million. State fragmented housing assistance initiatives—very little long term AHA—amounts at most to $10 million.

The attached brief “background” and three basic policies provides a starting point for discussion and three interim policy directions until a through State and City policy development process takes place. We cannot even begin to address housing needs without a stable and significant amount of funding. A City initiative might fund 5 to 15 units pilot of “affordable housing assistance” (AHA)--equal in cost to a single professional position at City Hall. A State program, already recommended by the Governor's Pathways from Poverty in 2016 and considered at last session, consists of a $2 nightly lodging fee mostly paid by out-of-state visitors which would fund over 1,000 units of “affordable housing assistance” (AHA).

A State AHA program also directly addresses a number of existing patchwork housing efforts provided by hospitals, the prison system, and the mental health agencies—three major government areas where housing is being provided in the community so the key organizations can avoid the huge financial burden of in-facility service because no AHA is available. The Department of Mental Health, Department of Corrections and hospitals hold individuals at great expense who only need a place to live with AHA support at a cost of about $9,000 yearly versus $62,000 for a Vermont prisoner with hospital stays of all type well above.

The three policies call for:
1. carrying out a State and City housing policy plan process
2. starting a statewide program of “affordable housing assistance” (AHA) employing a $2 a night lodging fee serving over 1,000 low income households, senior homeowners and renters in need, and the homeless
3. continued support for housing development through “inclusionary zoning” practice by Burlington and housing development by non-profit housing agencies like Champlain Housing Trust and senior/disabled houser Cathedral Corporation. Unless paired some or all “affordable housing assistance” these programs serve almost exclusively moderate and middle income households.


1/7/2018 Draft

A Universal Vermont and Burlington City Housing Policy Statement


Federal entitlement programs today insuring all households basic food security and health care. But no Federal “affordable housing assistance” (AHA) entitlement program exists. Federal truly “affordable housing assistance” is limited here in Vermont to 13,000 low income and disabled rental households—about one in six renters. Popularly known as Public Housing, Section 8 and Housing Choice Vouchers, “affordable housing assistance” (AHA) defined by the U.S. government means a household pays at most 30% of income for housing with rent adjusted downward if income declines. “Affordable housing assistance” is by design a “livable rent or ownership” also providing “shelter security” for recipients who know a sudden change in income does not threaten shelter loss. Truly “affordable housing assistance” remains a huge unmet need.

There exists no expectation the federal programs will expand to meet State and local needs. Both homeowners and renters face housing affordability challenge and any program must address both. The rapidly growing number of senior homeowners on fixed income pose a new concern as this group cannot be served by current programs. In Burlington alone over 1,000 wait on lists for existing “affordable housing assistance” and Cathedral Corporation serving seniors and the disabled in Chittenden County waiting lists tops 700 applicants seeking Federal “affordable housing assistance” or non-profit moderate income housing.

Three Overarching Policies for Today

  1. Establish a clear and comprehensive set of (City) (State) housing policies and measurable objectives focused on the low income and the disabled

  1. Dedicate funds from a State $2 nightly lodging fee to create an “affordable housing assistance” program based on need for low income seniors and families as well as disabled Vermonters (30% of household income maximum adjusted if income declines). This program includes a homeowner component.

  1. Advance non-profit and other housing development public policies and programs benefiting moderate income Vermonters.

A base document outlining Vermont housing information and programs: “2017 Vermont Housing Budget and Investment Report” Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development

Monday, December 25, 2017

Vermont Population Trends and Incomes--The Demographic Challenge

Vermont Population Trends and Incomes—The Demographic Challenge

For most all Vermont's 14 the current economic trends driven downwards by senior lower income households doubling over the two decade period 2010-2030 while under-65 households significantly decline.

The latest Census income estimates for Vermont—the five year period 2012-2016—show senior annual median incomes of $32,000 (rounded to the nearest thousand) 30% less than the median for all households, $56,104. These two income numbers become critical when looking at population growth and the Vermont economy.

For all of Vermont counties for the average of the two official state population projections growth of 3.1% is projected overall for the 2010-2030 period. With the state about a third of the way through the two decade projection period Vermont's flat growth is close to the lower projection. This bodes poorly for our overall economic performance as a doubling of senior population from 12% to 24% of total population with a far lower household income than non-seniors means absent other factors overall total income for Vermont declines. Already there are clear signs—even with the current national longest economic growth period since the Depression—that real declines are occurring in spending patterns of Vermont households.

Even the one Vermont county projected for significant overall population growth—Chittenden--is not immune to these trends. Chittenden population projections show monthly decline of 36 under-65 population versus an increase of 81 seniors. While Chittenden County is “growing,” that growth is only seniors while higher income non-senior income population declines. This suggests overall a slow economic decline in real terms for the State's population in terms of total household income and median income—all else being equal—and for Chittenden County a sluggish growth as best.

Statewide the senior population growth each and every year equals the Town of Stowe population and the loss of under 65 population equals a similar decline of population of that group equal to the population of the Town of Johnson—these trends projected to last the 2010 to 2030 period. Today and every day—10 less under 65 population and 12 more seniors.

While this decade clearly represents the best of economic times for Vermont some indicators already show a shifting of spending patterns in what is essentially a fairly flat income picture overall. For example, traffic growth shifted from a pattern of rapid growth in the 1980s to a peak in the early 1990s and on most urban and non-interstate areas a slow decline since the early 1990s. The shift from local retail to on-line buying comes into sharp relief with retail sales numbers for the year ending June 30, 2017 reported by the Vermont Tax Department (Seven Days, December 20, 2017, p 170) with Burlington 0% change, Williston -2% and South Burlington -4%. These numbers occurred during a period of about 2% inflation. These top Vermont retail centers not only reflect the “Amazon effect” of shifting retail sales to the internet, but also the spongy underlying demographics at play here in Vermont. The implications for State budgeting and spending, taxation policy, etc., are enormous. For a century Vermont population from the Civil War through 1960 remained between 300,000 and 400,000. The changes brought on by the interstate highways, the ski industry and baby boomer population growth fueled a population surge of over 50% to 625,700 in 2010 along with increased incomes and investment.  From 2010 Census estimates Vermont population declined just over 1,000 as of 2016, 624,600.  Now growth has subsided again and the composition of Vermont population strongly indicates a relative economic retreat and staid population numbers.  

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Chittenden County Rental Vacancy Data Background

Below find some historical data on Chittenden County rental vacancy rates and the recent 2015-2017 doubling of the recent history, 2010-2014, average of 1.4% to mid-2015 to mid-2017 of 3%.  That that 3% average is above the two-decade period of surveys of County rental vacancy rates done by the firm Allen and Brooks through 2014 when the highest rate semi-annual rate ever recorded was 2.7%.

Chittenden County rental vacancy rates information (from press reports of semi-annual Allen and Brooks rental and housing survey of Chittenden County)
--1995 to 2014 (36 semi-annual reports)--vacancy rate never above 3.0%
--peak rate to July 2015, 2.7%
--Average for 2016 3.25% (Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission)(
--recent rates (%)
Ave 2010-2014 1.4
June 2015 2.8 (highest since Allen and Brooks started surveys two decades ago)
December 2015 3.0
June 2016 2.1
December 2016 4.4
June 2017 2.5
June 2015-June 2017 3.0
--resurgence of housing construction in Burlington since 2013 (over 2,500 units built, in process of development) along with continuing balance of County ongoing expansion lead to an increased vacancy rate
--2.8% vacancy rate June 2015, highest since Allen and Brooks survey firm began semi-annual survey in two decades
--vacancy rate continued high hitting high of 4.4% in December 2016
--average of 3.0% June 2015 to June 2017 (two years) compares to 2010-2014 average of 1.4%
--snapshot vacancy surveys show in summer 2017 about 500 apartments are available to rent today in Burlington alone
--Add to this likely declines in students from both demographic trends and other states (two-thirds of UVM students are out-of-staters) using incentives to keep their college bound students home. New York, for example, starts it free tuition for residents in all public universities this fall.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Cambrian Rise first housing, Liberty House mostly occupied by college students?

The first part of the huge housing (700+ units), housing, hotel and commercial development, Cambrian Rise, on North Avenue opened this summer. Liberty House, the former Catholic orphanage, conversion to 32 studio/32 one bedroom apartments has been renting. Some interesting observations at the first housing Liberty House (the former Catholic Orphanage) with available unit rents between $1,350 and $1,900. A count of license plates today found 16 out-of-state and 13 Vermont. This does not include one covered motorcycle, a U-haul moving truck and a car with temporary Vermont plates.

With Burlington colleges opening this week, it is reasonable to assume that over half the renters so far are likely composed of out-of-state and even a few in-state students (2/3 of the 13,000 UVM student are out-of-state residents).

Monday, July 31, 2017

Medical Tourism--Montreal Choice Versus University of Vermont Medical Center

The University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMC) $600+ base cost for a routine dermatology appointment last year—it took six months to get that appointment—seemed way beyond reason after a routine one in Montreal in 2008 cost $75 Cdn in cash. So called the same Montreal physician's office two weeks ago and got my choice of morning or afternoon just six days later when planning a getaway visit to the True North. Made sure I brought some Canada cash and after the appointment the very pleasant receptionist gave me the bad news—the cost of the appointment over the last decade had gone up--$5--to $80 Cdn! That's medical inflation fo you! That is $60 US even after paying the ATM $3 fee. Quality of care?  Well, noticed this doctor, a McGill University Associate Professor of Medicine and researcher, displayed a plaque commemorating his presidency of the Canadian Dermatologists Association. Fortunately my State of Vermont supplemental insurance coverage allows 80% of the $60 US so I will get a check for $48.

Seems like everyone gets a benefit from this simple example of medical tourism. No claim at all against Medicare, very likely a smaller claim against the State insurance. Even my lower copay will cover a couple of trips to one of my favorite coffee shops—where I am writing this story.  Of course if a Canadian the government health care pays all--no copay, no-deductable (and no blizzard of mail from Medicare, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the physician, etc., etc.)! 

And UVMC? Well, wonder why except for the big stuff, a trip to them makes little sense if it can be avoided.   Besides, it is fun to travel!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

End of US Auto Age Reflected in Miles Traveled by Adults by Car

Doing research for the Parkway challenge ran into a fascinating and simpler explanation for the recent seven year plateau of car travel here in Vermont and across the nation.  When viewed from travel per person over age 16, the plateau extends to two decades long of no change--1997-2017. And that plateau likely slowly, inevitably, dips downward going forward for a number of reasons. 

This article last month by Jill Mislinski nails it by giving us a different reference point for discussion than the tired though once reliable century old data on US annual vehicle miles of travel changes.
By looking at age adjusted (miles of vehicle for those 16 and over) you catch a number factors working against any increase in US/VT car travel which include but are not limited to: (1) first and foremost the growing proportion of seniors whose yearly car travel is about 40% less than non-seniors; (2) for Vermont it is not only senior growth but also declining non-senior population  though somewhat lower in Chitteden County than elsewhere in the State; (3) over time the struggle to install safe walkable/bikable facilities in our cities will bear fruit and reduce car travel demand as a cross section of our population get to enjoy like many modern nations do today, safe walking and bicycling and walking urban areas; (4) ditto for public transit, particularly light and heavy rail; (5) perverse private and public incentives promoting sprawl will decline meaning greater densities; (6) global warming strategies as well as income inequality will force far higher taxation and pricing on gasoline and other nonrenewable energy--and over half Vermont petroleum gets consumed on the highway.  

Viewing car travel through miles per year by the over 16 population is a much better signpost than simply total vehicle miles. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Healthy Housing Rental Vacancy Rate Prevails in Burlington

July 4, 2017

Healthy Housing Rental Vacancy Rate Prevails in Burlington

...the rental vacancy rate continues upward and may already be in “glut” territory of 6 to 7 percent

A July snapshot count of online available Burlington housing rentals totaled 344, more than double a similar July 2016 survey finding of 129 vacant available rentals. This 344 July number alone represents a rental vacancy rate of 3.5% using the base of 2010 rentals, well within a “healthy” rental housing market range of 3-5%.

The latest snapshot survey reveals apartment prices fairly stable over the past year while all bedroom sizes except studio (they increased from 14 to 24) available vacancies more than doubled (Table 1) in the past 12 months. While median rents increased somewhat over the past year, the number of units available today below the 2016 median rents increased substantially. The 344 survey units represent only part of the available rentals which may easily exceed 500 or 600 with an actual rental vacancy rate of 6% to 7%. Larger apartment complexes, particularly those which are now opening—like the former orphanage Liberty House of 65 units on North Avenue—are tabulated with as little as one or two vacancies. The overall project of Cambrian Rise development of 733 mostly apartments, including Liberty House, on lands once owned by the Vermont Catholic Archdiocese is equal to about 7% of the entire Burlington 2010 rental inventory of 9,800.

The January private comprehensive survey by Allen Brooks found Chittenden County's rental vacancy rate of 4.4%, well within the range of “healthy,” 3-5%. The July snapshot survey indicates the current Burlington vacancy rate may be above of the “healthy” maximum which places financial strains on landlord, especially those with a few rentals. The Allen and Brooks January survey predicted a stabilization of rental prices and increasing vacancies in 2017, and the new snapshot survey supports those comments. With a healthy vacancy rate those seeking to rent obtain a reasonable choice and landlords do have to consider the market when pricing apartments. A “glut” occurs when a surplus supply of apartments force landlords to reduce rents below what it costs to operate and maintain, thereby leading to a decline in the condition and quality of the rental inventory.

With Burlington built or well into development about 2,500 apartments since 2013, a glut of vacant apartments--6% or more if the July data is any indicator--becomes a surprising problem after over two decades when vacancy rates seldom rose over 2.5% and rarely reached the healthy 3-5% vacancy level—and never a rental glut. (Note the 2,500 number does not include 274 housing units proposed in Burlington Town Center [BTC] re-development.)

The snapshot survey data is tabulated directly from Craigslist and other online services. From the 2010 Census, Burlington rental inventory totaled 9,800, 12% of the State rental housing. One major project renting this summer is the Cambrian Rise “Liberty House” with 65 studio and one-bedroom apartments in the former Catholic orphanage building on North Avenue. Clearly the June and July period is a very busy rental season and a firmer picture can be provided in a similar survey done in October when student rentals are fully reflected and apartment turnovers are relatively low.

Table 1

Comparison of July 2016 and July 2017 Burlington Snapshot Surveys
of Online Listings of Rental Apartments and Homes

Bedrooms    Number for Rent    Price Range   Median (Middle) Price
                        2016 2017               2017          2016 2017 % Change

0 (studio)         14    24              $725-$1,285          $968   $962    -0.6

1                      38   102              $700-$2,200         $1,050  $1,150  9.5

2                     43    135              $895-$3,350         $1,350  $1,450  6.9

3                     26     53               $600-$3,333         $1,825  $1,975  8.2

4 or more         8     30               $1,900-$3,900       $2,400  $2,633  9.7

Total 129 344
The April to July snapshot survey comparison, Table 2, confirms a pattern of stable median rents when increasing numbers of rentals considered. Four snapshot rental surveys—July and October 2016, and April and July 2017—show a continuing increase in online listings.

Table 2

    Comparison of April 2017 and July 2017 Burlington Snapshot Surveys
    of Online Listings of Rental Apartments: Numbers and Median Rents
    By Bedroom Size

Bedrooms      For Rent Number       Median (Middle) Price
                        April    July                      April     July
0 (studio)            13    24                        $1,100  $962

1                         81  102                        $1,140   $1,150

2                        86   135                        $1,495   $1,450

3                       42     53                          $2,175   $1,975 

4 or more         28     30                           $2,650   $2,633

Total 250 344

The snapshot surveys began in conjunction with the Coalition for a Livable City efforts to reduce and re-imagine the BTC re-development, questioning both the need for a large slug of downtown housing and the myth that BTC $1,000 one-bedroom apartments responded either to market need or were, as promoted, “affordable” much less providing “livable rents” or “shelter security.”

Several factors can account for increases Burlington and Chittenden County rental vacancies. The impact of a net increase of 300 students being housed this fall at the new UVM dormitory and 300 Champlain College students to be housed at Eagles Landing housing on St. Paul Street in fall 2018 both reduce student rental market demand. Also, there are questions about possible declines in student resident numbers at all area colleges because of either the demographic decline in college age populations and/or free tuition for college educations sudden starts this fall throughout the public universities in New York State and in the City of Boston.

While there is population growth in Chittenden County, the composition of that growth radically differs the past when under-65 age population naturally increased in the County and the State. Since 2010, ten of fourteen Vermont counties actually lost population. But as important, State official population projections, averaged, predict a doubling of senior population while residents under 65 decline—even in Chittenden County. Since 2010 the County growth of about 800 residents yearly mirrors the State average official population projections for 2010-2030. But the official predictions show the current growth composed of about 1,000 seniors and a decline of 200 under-age 65 residents. If this is currently taking place, then the demand surely mounts for not only small apartments—studios and one-bedroom housing units—but also a surge in demand for senior housing along the continuum which house independent residents, assisted living facilities, and finally nursing homes.

Finally, there is a complete lack of housing planning and policy development in Vermont as well as needed housing assistance. Vermont has no state housing plan while regularly producing an update to comprehensive transportation and energy plans. Further while about 13% of all Vermont renters are low income households benefiting from “livable rents” paying a maximum of 30% of income for rent--mostly from federal housing programs like Section 8—those programs stopped expanding early in the last decade as the federal government a abandoned efforts to provide housing assistance to all those of low and moderate income. In addition, today in an age where most Vermonters in their working lives will experience several job changes with the ups and downs of income, “shelter security” may well be as important as regular housing assistance--”shelter security” being assured a reduction in housing costs with dips in income from illness, unemployment, etc. “Shelter security” is also provided by Section 8 type units with rental amount decreased (and increased) as tenant incomes change.

The response to the federal government abandoning housing assistance has resulted in well intentioned but fragmented responses at the state and local levels. Hospitals, the corrections system and mental health field has resorted using non-housing streams of government funding to pay for housing as a far cheaper and far more beneficial to client needs than holding these individuals in institutional conditions. These often creative effort do in fact provide a context for formal, focused state and local housing assistance programs. For sure, there are today plenty of apartments ready to house the homeless and those in need of shelter.

Burlington housing market rental websites:


Bissonette Properties:


Tony Redington

Twitter: @TonyRVT60