Editor’s Note: This commentary is by Thomas Bailey, a Vermonter and South Burlington resident concerned about housing.
A recent VT Digger article, one of many to address the housing crisis, provided excellent data on the expenses commuting adds to the cost of housing. Many local employees must endure long and time-consuming commutes because the only affordable housing available to them is often far away from their jobs. A recent study in South Burlington, where I live, showed that only 30% of the municipal employees lived in the city, likely because of the high cost of housing here, and that study was before the Covid-19 inflation in housing prices.
What the article mentions in passing is the degree to which the lack of affordable housing in places like South Burlington, close to the jobs, contributes to atmospheric CO2 causing climate change. Vehicle exhaust, often from daily commuting, causes 45% of the (human-caused) CO2 in Vermont. If we truly wish to lower greenhouse gas emissions, communities near major employers, such as South Burlington, have a special obligation to provide more housing. As the VT Digger article makes plain, every new home not built-in job-centric places such as South Burlington is a home that will need to be built in communities such as Georgia, Grand Isle, Richmond or Jeffersonville, along with the accompanying expense and global warming CO2 of the commute. More housing near the jobs makes sense, especially in South Burlington with already extensive infrastructure in place (roads, water and sewer, and natural gas).
So, why is there no reasonably affordable housing available in South Burlington? Most studies attribute high housing cost and lack of availability to restrictive zoning and NIMBYs (not in my backyard), both of which are alive and well here. Although South Burlington claims to support affordable housing, its behavior has been primarily aimed at making less land available for housing, while expending large amounts of city dollars in “conserving” land. In the past 15 years, for example, South Burlington has spent $3,738,500 in acquiring and conserving land for non-development, mostly in the southeast part of the city, a census tract that boasts the highest wealth of any census tract in Vermont or Maine — higher than Stowe, higher than Killington. When a 157 unit mixed-sized (and priced) development was proposed recently, the neighbors, and others, stopped it. One of the wealthy neighbors eventually bought the property. But the proposal did mobilize a small group of citizens to demand the City Council stop all new development in that quarter of the city. The City Council responded by initiating interim zoning, now in its third year, where they have veto power over any new development, and by initiating “studies,” the apparent goal of which is restricting development.
Meanwhile, during this interim period, the planning commission has worked up new proposed regulations, not to incentivize much-needed housing, but in effect to take more land off the table for housing development. One proposal virtually prohibits development in supposed wildlife habitats for “bobcat, red and grey fox, river otter, beaver and fisher” (in Vermont’s second-largest city) even though there is no actual evidence that those species live here.
South Burlington is not the only community in Vermont that restricts development of new housing. The reasons opponents give at first glance seem appealing (e.g., it will destroy the views, increase taxes, change the culture, trash the environment, etc.) all usually boil down to one thing: Not in my backyard! (NIMBY). For communities near major employers, such as South Burlington, each new planning proposal should be scrutinized by asking: Does this proposal remove land from potential housing development? Does this proposal put new burdens on housing availability and cost? While Vermont’s rural town strategy of concentrating new development near the town centers and employment makes sense to avoid sprawl and reduce vehicle use, restricting new housing development near the state’s primary employers makes little sense.
Local, regional and state planning should be refocused to reduce the current long commutes highlighted in the VTDigger article. It’s time to take our housing crisis more seriously, and it’s time to reconsider how regulating new housing locations contributes to climate change.
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