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South Village Phase III Stirs Affordable Housing Questions

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Thursday March 29, 2018

South Village Phase III and its master plan have raised questions about affordable housing and the South Burlington Development Review Board (DRB) and Planning Commission are zeroing in on the bigger picture.

The third and final phase for the South Village Community came before the DRB for consideration this fall, but the applicant returned to the board in early February for reconsideration of conditional language regarding affordable housing.

The Master Plan is approved for a maximum of 334 units and includes a density bonus. Under Land Development Regulations, the DRB may grant a density increase of no more than 25 percent in the total number of allowed dwelling units for a mixed rate housing development. In this case, once the developer reaches unit 269, the applicant is then required to build one affordable housing unit for every market value unit. However, this particular process has unearthed a larger issue of how affordable housing is handled and how to consider it in the future.

Character and History

South Village, located in the Southeast Quadrant along Spear Street, is known for its single-family homes, townhomes, and condominiums surrounded by 150 acres of protected common land (woodlands, wetlands, and meadows), and is described as a conservation community. South Village includes a total of 220 acres.

The neighborhood also has recreation space and a 12-acre organic farm—the latter of which defines it as an agrihood, where the focus is on organic farm-to-table produce and programs.

Most recently, in February, the planning commission showed its support for a community-involved request to allow a small commercial component at the corner of Allen and Spear Streets with a 9,000 sq. ft. building to serve as a market, food hub, and gathering spaces. South Village is also planning for a community soccer field and restroom facilities.

The development follows a Traditional Neighborhood Design, which is touted as the first in the state; it is catered to pedestrian-friendly communities in which the homes are located close together and connected with narrow streets and sidewalks. Front porches and landscaping set the scene for a Traditional Neighborhood Design, as well.

Before the 1980’s, the area served as a meadow for growing hay and seasonal crops, and then the property was listed in early 2005 when Burlington-area business leaders joined to protect it from being divided up in suburban sprawl, according to the South Village website.

The development was Master Plan-approved for 334 homes in 2005, and is comprised of three phases - a mixture of residential owner and renter-occupied building types, and affordable housing, as required by Vermont State law for a 25 percent density bonus.

A Question of Uncertainty

The DRB closed the third and final phase on October 17, which proposed 22 single-family dwellings, four 2-family dwellings, two 3-unit multi-family dwellings, and two 12-unit multi-family dwellings at 1840 Spear St. A lengthy affordable housing conversation took place before the application was closed.

The conundrum lies in the language; as written, the applicant is allowed to construct 269 units of market rate housing. Once unit 269 is built, the applicant must incorporate affordable housing. Additionally, the applicant must distribute the affordable units across all phases.

The first concern board members have raised is the possibility that the project might never actually reach 269 units, and subsequently, no affordable housing units will be built.
There is also uncertainty regarding how the affordable housing units will be dispersed throughout all three phases of the master plan. To avoid the possibility of clustering the affordable housing units together, the board has asked how and where those units will be distributed.

The answers to the questions of where, when, how and even if the affordable units will be laid out in a plan are not clear. South Village Communities has shared with the DRB a conceptual map of where affordable units ‘could’ exist, but there is currently no guarantee that they will be built.

“We remain optimistic that we will be able to deliver affordable units to future residents of South Village, but given the number of nuances associated with how it’s going to work financially for the project, we are not willing to come forth with the application,” Patrick O’Brien of S.D. Ireland said in a written statement to the board in the fall. “Yes, we are close; we have worked with staff for almost a year on it, but we can’t put this cart before the horse.”

At a joint meeting with the planning commission on January 30, board members, without mentioning the specific application, brought the broader issue to the commission’s attention.

“We get these master plans in, we review them, and take into account the affordable housing bonus density, but we’re not seeing what is being deemed affordable,” Mark Behr, the longest-sitting DRB member, said. “If they’re asking for a density bonus for affordable housing, they should be telling us where it should be mixed.”

“A simple solution, for example, is to say the buildout needs to be pro-rated,” board member Frank Kochman offered.

The Affordable Housing Committee is currently working on potentially expanding an Inclusionary Zoning ordinance city-wide, Planning Commissioner Monica Ostby responded.

Inclusionary zoning is an affordable housing tool which establishes the “minimum requirements and incentives for the construction of housing to meet the needs of low- and moderate-income households,” as defined in Article 18 of the Land Development Regulations.

Both governing bodies also discussed the expense of building affordable housing and the need to alleviate that cost and further incentivize developers.

As for South Village, the board closed the application on the basis of Condition #25, which sets a requirement for six affordable units in Phase IIIB with no more than four units in the multi-family buildings. South Village Communities has since returned to the board with a reconsideration to amend the language to include, “In the event that the applicant builds more than 269 units,” preceding the existing text.

In the end, the board denied this request and took the advice of Ray Belair, the city’s Administrative Officer.

“If the applicant were to choose not to build more than 269, they could apply to amend their approval to reduce the number from 334 to 269, and then there would be no obligation to build any affordable units. At this stage, the affordable units are part of the original approval,” he said.

Meanwhile, the city’s Affordable Housing Committee is actively investigating potential amendments to clarify similar scenarios in the future. The committee discussed potential density bonus regulation modifications at its March 20 meeting. As Ostby mentioned, the committee is working on a draft proposal for a city-wide inclusionary zoning. "the committee will look at the bonus provision as we consider other measures, such as city-wide inclusionary housing, that will advance affordable housing," John Simson, chair of the committee said. 

Development of Phase III is currently underway.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent