When Ali Amani received his lease renewal agreement last month, he was shocked. Amani, who manages Little Morocco Cafe in the Old North End, read that his monthly rent would increase from $1,875 to $5,000 as of July 31, 2023.
While residential and commercial rents in the Burlington area have risen dramatically over the past several years, the landlord, Hinsdale Properties, made it clear the goal was eviction. Jacob Hinsdale, whose family owns Hinsdale Properties and is their property manager, told Seven Days he was raising the rent because he was frustrated with the tenant.
Amani discovered Hinsdale’s ambitions for a replacement tenant in September of last year when Hinsdale gave an unannounced tour of Little Morocco Cafe to a prospective renter: Sam Nelis, Barr Hill’s beverage director, was looking to open a bar. Amani and Hinsdale exchanged words, during which Amani says Hinsdale told him, “he did not want the ‘likes of us’ renting his property anymore.” (Hinsdale says this is a misrepresentation.) The future commercial tenant would benefit from what Amani describes as “thousands of dollars that we had to incur” in converting the former office space into a restaurant.
Jacob Hinsdale is quick to frame the controversy over Little Morocco Cafe’s eviction-by-rent-hike as a case of a landlord stuck with a problem tenant. But past tenants suggest that Hinsdale’s approach to Little Morocco is part of a larger pattern of this landlord’s behavior – evicting commercial tenants who have radical politics or are willing to call out Hinsdale’s poor landlord behavior.
Little Morocco Cafe Isn’t the First
Prior to Little Morocco Cafe, up until 2018 the storefront space at 294 N Winooski Ave was rented by the Vermont Workers Center. The Workers Center shared the space with other organizations, including United Electrical Workers and Migrant Justice. Kate Kanelstein, the Vermont Workers Center director, said, “We had been in the space for ten years, a community organization in a working-class neighborhood.”
Kanelstein said they only discovered Hinsdale’s plans to not renew their lease when he gave a prospective tenant an unannounced tour of the space. “To me, it speaks to the fact that as long as we treat land and housing as private property, we’ll be stuck in this situation where landlords have power over us.” Kanelstein also noted that during the Workers Center’s move-out party at the end of their lease, Little Morocco Cafe staff volunteered and helped. Migrant Justice, which also rented office space elsewhere in the same building, opted to move with the Vermont Workers Center to its new location at S Winooski Ave and King St. The prospective tenant Kanelstein had met passed on the space, with Little Morocco Cafe ultimately taking tenancy.
In 2019, the Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, which had shared the same building as the Workers Center, was denied the chance to renew its lease and had to scramble to find a new home. According to the Burlington Free Press, Hinsdale wanted to convert the performance space “into a brewery or similarly buzzworthy food-and-drink establishment.” Off Center’s board president Laura Rauld called it “a kick in the teeth.”
The Old North End continues to gentrify, and the fluctuations of the commercial real estate are both causes and effects of that shift. Rental apartment buildings become condos, ethnic community-serving establishments are replaced with coffee shops and brew pubs, resident demographics become whiter and wealthier. One constant amid the shift has been the Hinsdale family itself.
Lords of the Land
Jacob Hinsdale, his sister Laura, and his mother Irene run Hinsdale Properties, a sprawling empire rooted in Burlington, with over 35 properties consisting of over 170 units of residential housing valued at over $30 million dollars. This rental empire was built by Jacob’s late father Clark Hinsdale Jr., but the Hinsdale family’s roots and wealth go back to the United States’ earliest beginnings.
The first Hinsdales in America were early settler-colonists, starting with Deacon Robert Hinsdale, a man of high status in England, who arrived in the 1630s, shortly after the Mayflower. The Hinsdales amassed land and influence in short order, with the patriarch becoming a man of “leading station in the colony” of Massachusetts, according to the Hinsdale family genealogy. This included organizing militias against indigenous peoples attempting to take back their land which resulted in the death of the Deacon in Deerfield, MA in 1675.
Over the next three centuries, Hinsdale family members included the slave-owning Colonel Ebenezer Hinsdale, a mercantilist for whom the town of Hinsdale, New Hampshire is named. Hinsdale County, Colorado is named for George A. Hinsdale, Lt. Governor of Colorado in the 1850s. Hinsdale descendants include U.S. Senator from Kansas Preston Plumb and Lucy Kimball, who married Vermont-born Levi P. Morton, Governor of New York and 22nd U.S. Vice President (under Benjamin Harrison).
The Hinsdale family’s Vermont history dates to the 1700s as farmers, mill owners, and landowners. In the early 1900s, Jacob’s grandfather Clark Hinsdale Sr., the son of farmers, married Marion Preston, the daughter of Burlington jewelers. The Preston family along with his parents’ financial support allowed Clark’s son, Clark Jr., to begin his career as a landlord, purchasing his first properties in the 1950s and 1960s. After a divorce, in 1991 he married his second wife, Irene, who had worked for him starting in 1977. Irene, Jacob’s mother, was bequeathed the entire Hinsdale Properties business, a matter that would be settled in probate court after Clark Jr.’s death in 2008.
Currently, Jacob Hinsdale manages Hinsdale Properties, which has over $30 million in rental units, based on The Rake’s calculations of its publicly listed properties. He is married to Vermont State Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale, and they first met at a downtown revitalization development meeting, bonding over a shared interest in tiny homes. Sen. Ram Hinsdale is currently chair of the Senate committee that oversees housing and is the lead sponsor of the Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone (HOME) bill, which passed the Senate in late March. Ram Hinsdale wrote earlier this month that the bill “reduces regulatory barriers” to new construction.
Popular Pressure is Having an Impact
Public outrage appears to have put a wrench in Hinsdale Properties’ planned eviction of Little Morocco Cafe. Local community organizations have rallied to the restaurant’s defense, including a public rally on Tuesday, April 4.
Barr Hill’s Sam Nelis, the prospective new tenant, has backpedaled interest. His scheduled appearance before Burlington’s Development Review Board, for which he and Hinsdale Properties jointly submitted detailed operations and renovation documents for the North Winooski Ave space, was postponed at the last minute, with no new date set. Nelis told VTDigger “I have no commitments to Hinsdale Properties or anyone else at this time,” and was “dismayed” at the present conflict.
On Thursday, April 6, Little Morocco Cafe posted on its Facebook page, “Thank you so much for your ongoing wonderful support. It looks like a new five-year lease is within reach! While not yet entirely resolved, things look promising,” and entertained the possibility of a partnership with Nelis.
We have reached out to Little Morocco Cafe and Hinsdale Properties for comment.
Updated 4/11/2023 10:05 am: Clarified the prospective tenant that Kate Kanelstein had met during Hinsdale’s tour of the Vermont Workers Center offices.
Matt Moore is a writer from Vermont. He is on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.