In November 2020, the City of Burlington was awarded $3.6 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be used by the Burlington Lead Program to address hazards in low-income rental properties, including those facilitated by the Burlington Housing Authority (BHA). The program, which is run by the City of Burlington Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), has begun to rid older buildings of lead hazards. BHA residents, however, are concerned and confused by the program’s unclear temporary relocation plans, which require them to find housing using substandard stipends and accommodations far below the costs of housing in Burlington.
Residents at Duggan Row apartments on Maple Street were among those who received letters from the Burlington Lead Program in February 2022. In the letters, residents were given a testing report of their units that notified them of lead hazards in their units. Residents were also informed they could not be in their apartments while the replacement process was ongoing, and that they would be in contact with a Burlington Lead Program relocation specialist.
Those impacted were given two options: take a $30 per day stipend per person, or temporarily relocate to a three-bedroom, one-bathroom unit in Burlington’s South End. According to the Burlington Lead Program, the daily stipend has been upped to $50 per day per person, with a maximum of $200 per day due to inflation.
Burlington Lead Program Manager Margaret Williams told The Rake that the three-bedroom unit option is a single unit in which the program can house those going through the process. Using lead removal schedules, the Burlington Lead Program works to have the unit available to households that wish to stay there. Displaced residents would not need to share the unit with others, according to Williams.
Still, there is confusion among residents over when they will have to relocate, and for some, how they will find reasonable accommodations on a low daily stipend.
One resident, who wished to remain anonymous to protect their housing status, told The Rake that those in Duggan Row don’t have any idea when the contractors will come to replace windows and other lead hazards, stating that BHA responded to questions from residents by telling them it was “out of their hands,” with everything facilitated through the Burlington Lead Program.
When reached by The Rake, Burlington Housing Authority Interim Executive Director Steven Murray stated that the Burlington Lead Program and BHA “would be working together to notify occupants of timeframes,” adding that ample time would be given. Murray confirmed that the Burlington Lead Program is responsible for informing BHA of the project’s timeline.
Still, not knowing when they’ll have to make accommodations, and for how long, has caused stress for the resident, who has ongoing medical issues.
A $50 per day stipend for a single person in a month ranges between $1,500 to $1,550. The average rental cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the Burlington area is $1,163, and while that would allow those temporarily displaced by the Burlington Lead Program to cover the cost of housing in theory, many current apartment listings are above the average rate, with limited options available. It also does not take into account the lack of short-term rentals in Burlington, as most property owners require tenants to sign a one-year lease. Additionally, nightly rates for short-term solutions like hotels or Airbnb are in the $100-plus range. Neither the Burlington Lead Program or BHA would comment on whether the stipends accurately reflected short-term housing costs in Burlington.
According to Williams, for those who do not have reasonable accommodations or family or friends to stay with, extended stay hotels covered by the Burlington Lead Program are an option if the three-bedroom unit is unavailable. However, the letter sent to residents of Duggan Row did not inform residents of this option.
“The way I look at it, why send everyone this packet and just leave everybody hanging for six months?” said the resident, who is among those with no family or friends they could stay with in the area. They did not know about the extended-stay hotel option.
The lack of clear communication is compounded with residents’ concerns as to whether lead levels were properly addressed at Duggan Row in the past. While Murray told The Rake that BHA completes Essential Maintenance Practices on a yearly basis and follows Lead Safe Housing Rules, he also stated that BHA was working with the Burlington Lead Program because Duggan Row “has light capital reserves,” and that the project would allow for those reserves to be used for other capital improvements. Murray, who is the fourth BHA director since 2016, did not respond to questions over whether BHA can adequately manage the property without federal assistance programs nor would he provide details on any other planned improvement projects for the property, which houses children, who could be facing high levels of lead exposure.
The resident we spoke to stated there are holes in the walls of units, walkways, fire escapes, and entrances aren’t properly clear of snow in winter for people with disabilities that go ignored by staff as one of a number of issues they have with Burlington Housing Authority when it comes to maintaining the building and safety. According to this resident, speaking to city officials or other elected officials about the concerns doesn’t yield a response either. “The minute you mention Burlington Housing Authority, they put blinders on,” said the resident. “It’s not just the city, it’s representatives – Leahy, Sanders, and Welch.”
While waiting to hear more concrete information regarding the replacement of the resident’s windows, they used an at-home lead testing kit. It read well over the limits. But all they can do is wait, and try and figure out where to go while one major building and health concern is addressed, wondering what’s next.
“One of these days there’s going to be a serious incident and it’s all going to come back and bite them in the ass.”
Matt Moore is a writer from Vermont. He is on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.