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Demand For Housing Is Through The Roof, But Burlington Isn't Building (Much)

An apartment building under construction.
Elodie Reed
Redstone is building "One Lakeview," a new housing development along North Avenue in Burlington. Generally speaking, there's been little housing development in the Queen City compared to the demand.

Public officials and developers say restrictions and local opposition to development has created a housing crunch in Vermont's biggest city.

When Alfonso Villegas graduated from Vermont Law School in 2017, he started looking for a place in Burlington. His wife, Lilian, was about to start school at the University of Vermont.

“We wanted to be close to UVM because, we figured, we only had one car, we want to be someplace where, depending on whatever situation we get, someone can either walk to work or walk to school,” Villegas said. “I figured, well, it's Burlington, it’s the largest city — maybe there's a larger stock for housing.”

What he found was a competitive and expensive market. The median listing price is nearly $400,000 and in some neighborhoods, it’s more than half a million dollars,according to The median listing price for a home in Burlington is also about $100,000 higher thanthe state average.

A man sits on a couch.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Alfonso Villegas recently moved to northern Vermont with his wife, Lilian, and while the couple hoped to buy a home in Burlington, they couldn't find anything within their price range.

“I looked for an extended period of time, and I just couldn't find anything,” Villegas said.

Eventually, Villegas and his wife found a place. But not in Burlington — they had to settle for their second choice community, South Burlington. And even then, they couldn’t afford it alone. They had to take on a roommate to make it work.

Villegas says he knows he’s lucky — he’s makes about $55,000 a year as a deputy state’s attorney in Washington Country. But, still he’s frustrated by the lack of options.

“As a young married couple, ideally we would like to just have our own place,” he said. “But that's just not in the cards, at least in this area.”

Villegas’s struggle to find housing in Vermont’s largest city is not unique. Burlington is a city, similar to larger metropolitan areas like Boston, Portland and Minneapolis, where there’s high demand but a shortage of places to live.

Over the last 16 years, an average of only 63 residential units were built each year. Meanwhile, housing prices have skyrocketed. In 2000, the median home value in Burlington was $131,200according to the U.S. Census. Today, prices are triple that.

On mobile? Click here to see infographic.

Burlington’s housing crunch is not an anomaly within Chittenden County. But Burlington’s housing production has been low, said Charlie Baker, executive director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

“If Burlington wants to maintain their proportion of population of the county, they’re about 25% of the population, then they should be producing about 25% of the housing units,” Baker said. “They’re probably producing half of that.”

Developers say Burlington is not any easy place to build in. Erik Hoekstra is managing partner at Redstone, a local real estate company. Hurdles include a complex permitting process and restrictions on prime real estate — like along Pine Street in the trendy South End, according to Hoekstra.

A seagull in front of an apartment building under construction.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Redstone is developing an apartment complex on North Avenue. According to Redstone's managing partner, Erik Hoekstra, there are hurdles to accessing prime real estate in Burlington.

“Some of the best developable land is down in that corridor, but for a variety of reasons the community has said, 'We want that to remain a commercial corridor and not a residential corridor,'” he said. “So then, you know, you start to look at other places. A lot of the city is zoned low-density residential, where it's very difficult to build anything more than a duplex.”

BothMinneapolis and the state of Oregon have recently taken steps to allow denser development, which they hope will address the housing shortage. And in Burlington, city officials believe similar measures could help.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says to increase housing production, the city needs to ease certain regulations, like reducing parking requirements. Currently, thecity mandates a certain number of parking spaces per unit of housing and that means larger, multi-unit developments might include less housing in order to fit all the required parking.

Weinberger also thinks the city needs denser development in areas, like Pine Street.

A man.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who is a former developer, is in favor of easing restrictions and more building in the Queen City.

“We shied away from this conversation several years ago,” Weinberger said. “But I think coming back potentially to looking at some kind of innovation district in the South End — a piece, not the whole thing — but a piece of the enterprise zone that currently doesn't allow any housing in it. I think we may want to revisit part of that conversation.”

Beyond the regulations and lack of land, development projects often draw local opposition, which some say has hindered growth. Weinberger, who was a developer before being mayor, said minor concerns, like the size of shadows cast by buildings, have been given too much weight.

“We are going to need to get comfortable with seeing housing,” Weinberger said. “We're going to need to see taller buildings along the transportation corridors than we have often seen here in Burlington and Chittenden County in the past.”

Villegas, who struggled to find an apartment in Burlington, agrees with that sentiment.

“I think sometimes people get a little too protective over something that's old because it might change the character of the community a little bit,” Villegas said. “They've become short-sighted because they want to press pause on an old era, and the result is that they're not thinking about younger generations, they’re not thinking about future growth or sustainability."

On mobile? Click here to see infographic.

There are signs that a recent uptick is housing production has helped alleviate some market pressure in Burlington. Apartment vacancy rates — once around 0.7 percent — are now closer to 1.5 percent. That’s still lower than what’s considered healthy, but city officials like Weinberger say it’s a sign that boosting supply is making a difference.

Correction July 30 10:30 a.m.: The infographic "New Residential Construction in Burlington 2003-2019" was previously missing a number. It now includes the 31 multi-family units built in 2018. 

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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