As development continues in small doses around South Burlington, so does the question of affordability.

Soon, the city will consider building more inclusionary zoning into the land development regulations to balance the need for affordable housing once the planning commission votes to have a public hearing. The commission heard a presentation from the Affordable Housing Committee at its meeting on Aug. 27, and three weeks prior the committee shared its proposal with the city council.

Committee chair John Simson explained that inclusionary zoning is a tool used to include affordable units in market rate residential projects.

Inclusionary zoning already exists in the City Center Form Based Code District. The regulations require that affordable and moderate housing be included in developments with 12 or more residential units.

The committee is recommending expanding inclusionary zoning to the Transit Overlay District (areas within a quarter mile of public transportation i.e. Shelburne Road, Williston Road, Kennedy Drive, Dorset Street, and part of Technology Park), as well as some additional areas in order to ensure that development during interim zoning includes an affordable component.

For developments with more than 12 units, the Affordable Housing Committee is recommending that 15 percent of those units be affordable in perpetuity. People whose household median income is at or below 80 percent are eligible for affordable rental housing. For ownership, availability must be at or below 100 percent of the household median income.

For the developers, there are offsets and incentives recommended to make the use of affordable housing more enticing. The committee proposes one additional market rate unit for every one inclusionary unit and parking requirements for inclusionary units no greater than one space per unit. The city council will have a public hearing on Sept. 16 where elimination of parking standards altogether will be considered, which could affect the committee’s proposed parking requirement.

Developers will also have the option to dedicate land in lieu of inclusionary unit construction or develop inclusionary units off-site. There will not be an option for an in-lieu fee.

Filling the Void

South Burlington – and Chittenden County as a whole – is a desirable place to live, but for many, it is not feasible. 

Simson and Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission Planning Program Manager Regina Mahoney explained to the planning commission that the issue is multi-faceted: job growth is stymied, employees are leaving the county, there is a low rental vacancy rate and the cost of living is high in the county.

One of the sources they cited was the University of Vermont Medical Center, which, under federal legislation, is required to conduct a community health assessment every three years to help identify current health trends, needs and assets. 

The UVM Medical Center’s 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment, which covers the health service areas of Chittenden and Grand Isle counties, identified affordable housing as the third largest need in the community, preceded only by mental health and substance use disorder. Others on the list were childhood and family health, disease prevention and cancer.

In the results from UVM’s 2019 Young Professional Survey, major assets of living in the area were a sense of community, natural assets and localvore culture. The challenges were listed as the cost of living, housing and lack of job opportunities and job growth.

In a VPR-PBS Vermont poll conducted in 2018, the results showed that a third of Vermonters rank housing costs as their number one source of financial stress.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach Report for 2019, Vermont has the 16th highest housing wage. Earning $22.78 an hour would be required to afford a two-bedroom rental home. For a person making minimum wage, which in Vermont is $10.78, that person would need to work 85 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom rental home or 67 hours to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.

Burlington and Hinesburg have integrated inclusionary zoning into their regulations. 

Nationwide, according to a study from the Grounded Solutions Network published by the Lincoln Land Institution Policy in 2016, 886 jurisdictions in 25 states and the District of Columbia were identified having inclusionary zoning programs.

How is South Burlington doing?

In South Burlington’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan, there is a goal that targets construction of 1,080 new affordable housing units by 2025 with 840 housing units affordable to households earning up to 80 percent of the median income and 240 housing units affordable to households earning between 80 percent and 120 percent of the median income. 

Based on an annual rate of production so far, the city is falling shy of this goal, Simson explained. Sandy Dooley, vice chair of the affordable housing committee, spelled it out.

“The 1,080 that’s in the Comprehensive Plan came from a task force report that looked at the proportion of affordable housing in the city when it was done and also looked at the fact that over the past 10 years before that, virtually no affordable housing had been built,” she said. 

The task force report was completed during the city’s previous round of interim zoning.

“The theory behind it is to try to keep us as affordable as we were when we finished that task force report,” Dooley said.

Regionally, Champlain Housing Trust, Housing Vermont and the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission launched the Building Homes Together campaign, which aims to build 3,500 homes by 2021 for people of all incomes, including 700 affordable homes – a rate of 140 affordable homes per year. The average thus far has been 92 units per year, Mahoney said. The numbers account for units that have been constructed and are currently occupied.

“How are we doing in terms of carrying the load?” Commissioner Art Klugo asked.

In terms of affordability units, Cathedral Square accounts for 39 units, the Champlain Housing Trust project on Market Street is 42 units, Quarry Hill has 13 units and the Shenk development on Market Street has two units – all over three years’ time. 

“We need to be telling the story in a more positive way,” Klugo said. “If we’re trying to become more affordable quicker than other areas, we should be promoting that. Promote that success and recognize what’s happening in the community right now; that’s not how this reads.”

To this end, the committee provided a couple of testimonials of those directly affected by the implementation of inclusionary zoning – an added bulb to shed a more positive light:

“I can’t tell you what living here means to me,” Pat Kilgour, a resident of Allard Square told Regional Planning. “The opening came through just the nick of time when I was financially at the end of my rope and worried about what to do. Now I’m in this unbelievable place where staff do so many nice things for us just out of the kindness of their heart. I feel so blessed, like someone is looking out for me. I will never take that for granted.”

After looking at rental and ownership inclusionary examples, reviewing price comparisons, assessing developer incentives and taking interim zoning conclusions into consideration, the commission collectively decided it was time to take this proposal to the next phase.

Though the recommendation is to have inclusionary zoning in the Transect Overlay District, the long-term goal is to have it be considered citywide. 

“This is a stepping stone while Interim Zoning is happening,” said commissioner Monica Ostby, who serves as a liaison on the Affordable Housing Committee. “So the community understands: the intention is to go city-wide in different ways.”

The next planning commission meeting is on Tuesday, Sept. 10.

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