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Burlington’s new zoning sets city up for more ‘missing middle’ housing

An aerial view of a city downtown at sunset with mountains in the background
DutcherAerials/Getty Images
Aerial view of downtown district in Burlington, Vermont at sunset.

This week, the city of Burlington enacted large-scale residential zoning reform. Every residential area in the city has been upzoned — allowing for larger properties with more units.

The goal is to fill out the “missing middle” in housing: multi-family homes that were legal to build in the past but then made illegal under subsequent zoning codes.

Under the previous zoning code, most residential areas in the city were limited to duplexes at most. Now, even the areas zoned for low density can have two buildings with four units each, provided there is enough space on the lot. Buildings can cover more of a lot and there are more flexible rules for building size and distance from the rear property line.

But don’t expect a sudden influx of new housing units.

“The most immediate change that we may see is existing homeowners being able to renovate or add on to their homes in ways that they haven’t.” said Ben Traverse, city councilor for Ward 5. “There are a lot of contractors in Vermont that don’t want to do business in Burlington because of the restrictions that have been in place in terms of not being able to renovate or add on to a home.”

The vast majority of housing in Burlington was built in older zoning eras and grandfathered in. In fact, 52% of Burlington’s housing lots were created before the city implemented its first zoning code in 1947. The new, looser regulations will allow owners of so-called non-conformities to build out, adding features like a porch or additional units.

Additionally, portions of North Avenue, St. Paul Street, and Colchester Avenue are now part of a new “Residential Corridor” zoning district, permitting four-story buildings (over three elsewhere), no limit to the number of units (provided they can fit) and a variety of commercial uses in new buildings. (In other residential districts, businesses are only allowed in historic buildings or ones previously used for commercial purposes.)

The upzoning effort is part one of BTV Neighborhood Code, originally proposed in outgoing Mayor Miro Weinberger’s 2021 Housing Action Plan. The next city government will take up part two, including regulations for cottage courts (clusters of housing surrounding a central greenspace) and other larger projects called planned unit developments.

A wide variety of people and organizations lobbied for the reforms, ranging from college students trying to find places to rent to the Vermont branch of AARP.

Kelly Poor, associate state director for AARP Vermont, said her organization has been working with the city of Burlington since 2018, when the city began work on reforms for accessory dwelling units, which the council passed in 2020.

Missing-middle housing benefits older Vermonters in several ways, Poor said. For people in large single-family homes they can no longer maintain or which don’t meet their accessibility needs, smaller housing options give them the option to downsize. And building in already-established neighborhoods means the amenities and infrastructure older people need are already available.

“The majority of our housing has been built for able-bodied 35-year-olds,” Poor said. “When you look at the missing middle housing types, these newer housing types that would be built under the neighborhood code, it really provides a much more age-friendly option for older adults.”

‘Even a couple hundred … will be very helpful’

The vast majority of new units in Burlington over the past several years have been large apartment buildings. In 2023, 83% of new units built were part of two properties: 77 Pine Street and 157 South Champlain St.

Andy Montroll, head of the planning commission, doesn’t expect the Neighborhood Code to change that. But spurring new construction elsewhere in the city, when the need for housing is so acute, is not nothing.

“Over the next five to ten years, you might have a couple hundred units altogether in the residential neighborhoods,” Montroll said. “And when we have such a need for more housing units, even a couple hundred units, if that’s what it is, I think will be very helpful.”

Weinberger, who leaves office in April, said in an interview he was grateful to the City Council and to incoming Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak for encouraging the council to pass the code, rather than send it back to committee.

But Weinberger said he sees more work to be done, pointing to reforming inclusionary zoning on the local level and Act 250 at the state level as tools to further alleviate Burlington’s housing crisis.

“I am thrilled that, in the last meeting that I was mayor, that it was unanimously approved,” Weinberger said. “I think this action, along with the other things we’ve done on housing over the last 12 years, has changed the trajectory of housing in this community. And I think in the years to come you will see many more homes built as a result.”

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Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.
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