December 30 2020

Letter to the Editor: How Can Burlington Housing be Made Affordable for Our Kids?

By: Phil Gallagher

The following is a letter/editor from Phil Gallagher. Gallagher has been a volunteer in local access cable television for the past 38 years, 20 of those years serving as the BNEWS anchor. He submits the following editorial for your review:


You know you're from Burlington if your children and grandchildren cannot buy a home here.

Newton's Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nothing could better describe Burlington's economic success.

At the Ways and Means Committee meeting two weeks ago Burlington town administrator Paul Sagarino presented The Board of Selectmen and financial management teams recommendations for budget guidelines for all departments for the upcoming fiscal year.

Included in that presentation was an exhaustive analysis of Burlington's financial condition including a projected budget, revenue, assessed value, reserve balances, classification rates, tax rate, comparisons to every town in the region, etc. etc. etc.

One double-edged sword in the presentation was the average home value in Burlington which came in at $570,000. This number is of no real concern to those of us who have no intention of moving unless it is to Chestnut Hill.

It is, of course, a great concern to parents and grandparents who hope to see their children and grandchildren living down the street.

Now please keep in mind that this is strictly my own opinion gleaned from observation. In the next ten years, every single pre-1970 unimproved home will be more valuable as a knockdown than it will be as a resale. Burlington will continue its trend toward McMansion land. A small ranch or cape (the cornerstone of Burlington's original housing stock) will never be seen again. If this trend continues we could turn into one of the W towns or Lexington or Bedford. Nothing frightens me more!!!!! (almost only kidding)

Burlington has made strides in some affordable housing areas but affordable rentals are still sky high and do nothing to address the underlying problem. The problem is the American dream of homeownership and the accumulation of capital.

Burlington has approved well over a thousand units of massive density rental projects over the last several years. The problem is that with Burlington housing stock always rising in value all of that capital appreciation ends up in the pocket of the developer. This, of course, is fair cause that is how our system works.

However, for our progeny, this does not address the problem of entry-level homeownership and the ability to stay in the town they grew up in. So what is the solution?

The next thousand units of higher density housing should be one-bedroom condominiums. Now I have consulted a few of my developer friends and they say that it would be impossible to build these without a sale price of $300,000 or more.

This is still a far cry from $570,000 and makes a home reachable. If a young couple or single person could scrape together 20 or 30 thousand and perhaps Grammy and Papa and Mom and Dad could throw in some thousands then this is clearly doable. A 250k 30-year mortgage at 5% is 1342 dollars per month. Even adding taxes in that is still a far cry from $2200 a month in rental money just thrown away.

How can this problem be addressed?

As usual, zoning is the answer. The town meeting has always relied on this to address a myriad of problems.

Now planning board members tell me that legislating actual rules for a project presented them can't be done. However, it can be done through planned development. If someone comes in with a large rezoning request the town could offer a higher density in return for homeownership opportunities. Or if retail continues its nosedive then perhaps condos could be attached to some of the larger existing projects

It could also be done with an RFP for some town-owned land. The soon to be obsolete Overlook park might work. Also, there are some church properties in town that could offset some of their financial issues by developing small pieces.

It could also be done within the neighborhoods. Zoning could be changed so that 4 unit condos could be allowed which might equal the same profit for a developer that a McMansion would present.

Let's do the math, 1000 condos at 300,000 apiece is valued at 300 million dollars. At an appreciation rate of 5% annually, that would result in individual homeowners accumulating 15 million dollars per year in capital appreciation instead of enormously rich national developers enjoying the profits.

As a townie, I have basically been opposed to most of the huge development in town. But even I have to face the reality that the little bucolic hamlet I grew up in is gone and not returning. We are a huge dynamic engine of growth within our state and over the next hundred or two hundred years density will continue to increase.

Let's make sure our children and grandchildren are not victims of this dynamic.


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