December 19, 2023
To the Burlington City Councilors and Mayor Weinberger,
Thank you for the due diligence you are applying to your evaluation of the recently publicized Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the University of Vermont and the City of Burlington detailing UVM’s plan to construct additional housing in its stated commitment to positively impacting Burlington’s crisis regarding the availability of sufficient affordable housing. I write today to express my concerns that the MOU leaves out critical consideration of factors that are especially pertinent to that crisis.
Let me begin by stating that I am not, in any way, opposed to new housing for UVM students. Nor am I opposed to the consideration of an increased enrollment plan for the university. I could talk in detail about how I feel the East Avenue corridor, the Colchester Avenue corridor, and the Centennial Stadium area are currently underutilized as a potentially vibrant arena for an improved campus district. I say this as a long time resident of Bilodeau Court situated centrally in the midst of those areas. Additionally, I began my position as a staff member with the Division of Student Affairs at UVM in 1996. I have interacted directly with UVM students on a daily basis for my entire professional career. I chose and have honed my profession precisely to interact with the college student demographic. I deliberately choose to live within walking distance to my job and under the shadow of the university. I would be perfectly fine if that shadow increased in size and my neighborhood evolved to include more college students. I am grateful for what UVM offers to our community and how it has served me and my family. My daughters are both graduates of the institution, one with a bachelor’s degree as well as a graduate degree. It is from this gratitude and love for the institution that I remain so vocally critical of the current administration’s disregard for the impact they are having on its staff members, its faculty, its students, and the neighboring community.
That being said, the housing crisis and, specifically, UVM’s contribution to the crisis remains the number one issue presented to me by the residents of the district I serve as State Representative. This issue is presented to me by long term residents of the community as well as current students (both on-campus and off-campus residents). We have a clear obligation to hold UVM accountable to those concerns as they request any zoning exemptions for new housing within the context of any long term enrollment growth. New zoning exemptions to accommodate an increase in campus housing must be accompanied by a clearly articulated long-term enrollment plan from the university administration.
I’ll summarize my critique of the MOU with four main points (focussing only on undergraduate enrollment).
- An overall skepticism and lack of trust in the university administration based on the recent track record for enrollment expansion beyond campus housing capacity and in disregard for how continued enrollment is negatively impacting the quality of life for so many neighboring residents.
- A concern for the continued impact increased enrollment will have on the surrounding rental market when UVM does not offer a clearly stated commitment to housing upperclass students, even with a stated intention to build apartment style residences. Simultaneously, the current MOU does not commit in any measurable way, to address the current overcrowding of on-campus first and second year students.
- A continuation of the current trend to move away from the mission of serving Vermont students as the flagship state land grant institution.
- A continued and consistent increase in undergraduate enrollment is impacting the capacity of the faculty and staff who serve those students.
UVM has a terrible track record of keeping enrollment within the available housing capacity for on-campus students. The two most recent construction projects for on-campus housing validate this concern and skepticism.
Opening of the University Heights
- When the University Heights on-campus residence halls opened in the 2006 fall semester, undergraduate enrollment was reported at 9,040 students.
- Five years later, in the 2011 fall semester, undergraduate enrollment was reported at 10,459 students.
- This represents an increase of 1,419 students seeking off-campus housing following their first two years of the on-campus housing requirement. If these students moved off campus in living groups of four students, the increase over those five years would have required a need for 355 dwelling units of at least two bedrooms each.
Opening of the Central Campus Residence Hall
- Please note that the Central Campus Residence Hall replaced three previously existing residence halls (Chittenden, Buckham, and Wills halls – AKA “the shoeboxes”)
- When CCRH on-campus residence halls opened in the 2017 fall semester, undergraduate enrollment was reported at 10,513 students.
- Five years later, in the 2022 fall semester undergraduate enrollment was reported at 11,326 students.
- This represents an increase of 813 students seeking off-campus housing following their first two years of the on-campus housing requirement. If these students moved off campus in living groups of four students, the increase over those five years would have required a need for 203 dwelling units of at least two bedrooms each.
Increase in enrollment since the MOU discussion began in 2022
- Since debate began on the zoning exemptions requested by UVM in 2022, when UVM publicly stated that “enrollment is where we want it”, undergraduate enrollment has increased to a reported 11,614 students for the 2023 fall semester.
- This represents an increase of 288 students in the span of one year. If these students move off campus in living groups of four students, they will need an additional 72 dwelling units to become available when they sign leases as early as September, 2024.
UVM is presenting its growth in disingenuous ways when viewed in the context of on-campus and off-campus housing. We continually hear that they hope to keep undergraduate enrollment at or about 3,000 students per incoming cohort. It is critical to realize that this is above the current enrollment of 11,614 students by 386 students (requiring an additional 97 dwelling units needed for off-campus housing).
UVM has consistently demonstrated nothing other than the pattern of requesting permission to build new housing, expanding enrollment beyond the capacity of that housing within five years of opening, and then depositing the increase in students to the off-campus housing market. Given that the currently proposed MOU expires only five years from now, it is imperative that we consider its approval within the context of this trend.
The MOU offers no stated commitment to house upperclass students.
Source for enrollment calculations:
Enrollment | UVM Office of Institutional Research and Assessment | The University of Vermont
Current Overcrowding of On-Campus Students
In addition to the concerns explained above for how the continued increase in undergraduate enrollment will also continue to stress an already unsustainable rental vacancy rate, we must require UVM to commit to improving the over-crowded conditions for students living on campus.
UVM has been accommodating the persistent on-campus student increase by housing more and more students within “forced triples”, a practice by which the university houses three students in a space that has historically been designed to accommodate two students.
The UVM Department of Residential Life utilized 433 triple rooms for 1,299 students during the Fall 2021 semester.
Source: UVM predicts uptick in dorm triples – The Vermont Cynic
The Department predicts that approximately 30% of its students can expect to be housed in triples.
Source: Triple Rooms | Residential Life | The University of Vermont
It is noteworthy that these accommodations result in habitable floor area per student that is below the city’s zoning requirements. The City of Burlington code requirements necessitate that “Every dwelling unit shall contain a minimum habitable floor area of not less than one hundred fifty (150) square feet for the first occupant, and one hundred (100) square feet for each additional occupant, up to a limit of three (3) and at least fifty (50) square feet for each additional occupant after four (4).”
Source: Article III. Minimum Standards, Division 4. Space and Occupancy
The average square footage of a double room at UVM is approximately 186 square feet (93 square feet per resident). When housing three students in what has historically been termed a double room, the square footage per resident drops to an alarming 62 square feet in an average sized room.
Source: Halls | Residential Life | The University of Vermont
The MOU offers no stated commitment to alleviating the current overcrowded conditions for first and second year students living on-campus (forced triples).
Continued Departure from the Mission of a Land Grant Institution
As the flagship land grant institution for the state of Vermont, UVM has an obligation to provide a quality public education to the residents of Vermont. We simply must ask how increased enrollment within the context of a small population state impacts that obligation. It is no secret that a continued increase in enrollment will alleviate the funding gap resulting from sparse support from state allocations. While I remain available for continued discussion on how to best impact that conversation at the state level, I am not convinced that current trends serve the mission of a land grant institution.
Out of state students provide more tuition revenue to a university that is continually struggling to respond to the increased commodification of higher education in a state that underfunds its public institutions of higher education. While this MOU should not necessarily address the ways in which we are becoming increasingly out of balance in our service to Vermont students, it is worth noting the ways in which the current enrollment scheme is shaping the optics of the land grant mission.
The class of 2026 was composed of only 16% of Vermonters. The class of 2027 did not significantly improve and is composed of only 18% of Vermonters. This worsens the current trend by which UVM is made up, proportionately, of fewer and fewer Vermont students.
Impact of Continued Enrollment on the Service Capacity of Faculty and Staff
I’ve described the impact of increased enrollment on the neighborhoods within the district I represent as a State Representative. As a long time staff member currently employed by the Center for Student Conduct, I can also discuss the very specific ways that current overcrowding within on-campus housing is impacting UVM students. Beyond the general complaints of a decrease in personal space and an inability to find areas for even momentary seclusion, I also hear on a very regular basis about how an unhealthy reliance on cannabis and alcohol to cope with the resulting stress culminates in an intersection with the conduct process. These frustrations are frequently echoed in conversations I have with parents who also recognize the added stress on their students that derive from the detrimental conditions that associate with living in forced triples. We’re also creating an equity issue when families with the means to do so simply purchase a more reasonable living situation despite the added cost.
Source: Costs and Fees | Residential Life | The University of Vermont
I urge you to also seek testimony from the UVM Faculty Union (United Academics) as well as the UVM Staff Union (UVM Staff United) who will provide additional evidence for how the increased enrollment trend is impacting classroom dynamics and various student services we are asked to provide.
In closing, I urge you to consider requesting the addition of at least three critical statements to be included in any approved MOU.
- New zoning exemptions to accommodate an increase in campus housing must be accompanied by a clearly articulated long-term enrollment plan from the university administration.
- The MOU must offer a stated commitment to house upperclass students.
- The MOU must offer a stated commitment to alleviating the current overcrowded conditions for first and second year students living on-campus (forced triples).
I disagree with a statement provided by Richard Cate, the UVM Vice President for Finance and Administration, during last night’s discussion. With his statement, he indicated that he felt the MOU offered indicates a final offer as dictated by the Board of Trustees. I will remind all involved with this discussion that UVM is, ultimately, a charter of the General Assembly. I remain committed to keeping this conversation active at the state level to whatever degree I am able and that feels supportive of the City of Burlington’s efforts.
State Representative for the Chittenden 15 House District
Ward 1 Resident