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Fair Game

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The clock is ticking for 44 of Burlington’s poorest public-housing residents caught in a battle between their landlord and two housing nonprofits. Depending on which side wins, the low-income and disabled tenants could face eviction later this winter.

As Seven Days noted last year, Pizzagalli Properties is trying to sell its Wharf Lane building. It’s one of thousands of affordable housing complexes built 30 years ago using taxpayer-subsidized mortgages and rental subsidies provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The deal was: At the end of the mortgage, the developers would have the option to sell the low-income housing to the highest bidder.

How much could Wharf Lane fetch on the open market?

A recent private appraisal reportedly estimates the building’s market value at $4.8 million, more than double the city’s 2006 assessment of $1.6 million. The lower figure reflects the building’s current use: home to 37 units of affordable housing. The higher number measures potential revenues based on converting those into high-rent units for college students.

That’s what happened recently at a HUD-subsidized, six-unit apartment building at 113 Maple Street. Rent for a three-bedroom unit there has gone from $930 for a subsidized unit to $1950.

Vermont Housing Finance Agency and the Burlington Housing Authority want to buy Wharf Lane and keep it affordable. But talks with Pizzagalli broke down in recent weeks, in large part because the nonprofits can’t afford to pay top dollar for the building.

City officials are watching closely.

“The city and our housing partners are doing all that we reasonably can to prevent the loss of this critical housing resource,” said Brian Pine, assistant director at the city Community Economic and Development Office. “We are talking about folks who will experience a real hardship if they are forced to move out.”

If the deal falls through, tenants will receive eviction notices by month’s end. Their leases run through March 31.

“Some of us are panicked, and some of us are frustrated because there is no information coming from anyone,” said Vera Newman, president of the tenants’ association at Wharf Lane. “March 31 is coming up fast, and everyone just wants to know: Are we staying? No one is prepared to move during the winter.”

If they do have to go, Newman added, residents will face a very tight housing market, armed with subsidized housing vouchers that are difficult to get. In December, Chittenden County’s rental vacancy rate was 1.4 percent; only a small percentage of the available units are handicapped accessible.

BHA executive director Paul Dettman said he’s confident the vouchers will come through in time. And he predicts that by week’s end, Wharf Lane tenants will know for sure if they can remain in their homes or not.

Newman is not only worried for her neighbors but the people who live in the nearby 57-unit Bobbin Mill apartments, which are sandwiched between Pine and South Champlain streets. That property, also owned by Pizzagalli, will be up for sale later this year. Many of the tenants there have small children.

“What’s happening to us is small beans compared to what’s going to happen to Bobbin Mill,” said Newman.

Bernie’s Backlash

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is still getting heat for mixing fundraising and politics in an email appeal to supporters that arrived the day after the Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).

The email missive began, “Given the recent tragedy in Arizona, as well as the start of the new Congress, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few words with political friends in Vermont and throughout the country. I also want to thank the very many supporters who have begun contributing online to my 2012 reelection campaign at www.bernie.org. There is no question but that the Republican Party, big money corporate interests and right-wing organizations will vigorously oppose me. Your financial support now and in the future is much appreciated.”

Say what you will about the intent of Sanders’ four-page email, but the timing — and tone — was horrendous.

Sanders defends the email, claiming he wasn’t trying to raise money off the tragedy in Arizona, but rather indicating some of the ways in which Republicans, corporations and the media are trying to destroy the middle class. Same old, same old.

The “right-wing media” took his mention of the Arizona shootings out of context, said Sanders, who went to great lengths to note that it was the Weekly Standard, a Rupert Murdoch-owned publication, that first reported news of the email’s content.

Not so fast. Even Vermont Public Radio took Sanders to task.

Last Thursday, during a five-minute interview on “Vermont Edition,” host Jane Lindholm repeatedly asked Sanders about the email’s timing and content. Sanders pushed back, asking listeners to read the email for themselves.

Sanders was trying to end the interview when Lindholm pressed on: “I have read it. I do have a question for you about it. You make it very clear in the letter that you consider this a politically motivated shooting, though, you reference several other acts of violence in Arizona…”

Sanders interrupted, “No, what I said was…”

Refusing to be bullied, Lindholm continued, “You said, quote…”

“I know what I wrote,” blurted Sanders. “What I wrote is, and, again, I would urge people to read it … I think there are concerns about the kinds of not only violence that we have seen, but the tone that exists in some parts of this country, including Arizona. And I hope that we can deal with that in the coming months. Jane, thank you very much.”

And then Sanders simply hung up.

No Contest Council

Monday is the deadline for Burlington City Council candidates to announce their intentions, but it doesn’t appear many citizens are lining up.

Every year, half of the council’s 14 seats are up for grabs. So far, only one of the seven looks to be contested.

Incumbent councilors Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), Bram Kranichfeld (D-Ward 2) and Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) are seeking reelection without opposition. Shannon defeated Progressive-turned-Democrat Carina Driscoll in a recent caucus.

Councilors Mary Kehoe (D-Ward 6) and Nancy Kaplan (D-Ward 4) are not seeking reelection, but two Democrats have stepped up in their stead — Norm Blais in Ward 6 and Dave Hartnett in Ward 4.

Burlington’s Republicans are running just one candidate: incumbent Vince Dober (R-Ward 7). The GOP won’t challenge Democrat Hartnett in the conservative New North End. Hartnett is pals with Republican Kurt Wright, who holds the other Ward 4 council seat.

Democrat Greg Jenkins is challenging Dober in the only contested race to date.

Democrats decide Wednesday night if they’ll challenge Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3). He was elected in November to fill out the remaining term of Marrisa Caldwell, who resigned her seat because she moved.

For their part, Progressives aren’t trying to recapture Kranichfeld’s Ward 2 seat, which they held from 1981 until Kranichfeld’s victory in 2009.

Welching on Promises

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch returns to Washington this week, ready to continue his fight against GOP plans to repeal last year’s health care reform law. Earlier this month, he helped lead the Democratic effort to push back against the GOP’s repeal vote by forcing up-or-down votes on key items in the heath care bill. That effort failed, but Welch earned plenty of face time on national TV news outlets.

“It looks like Republican leaders have gone down the rabbit hole. Just last year they were calling for less spending, more debate and an open amendment process,” Welch said. “Now, their first move out of the gate is to increase the deficit by $140 billion, shut down debate and prohibit amendments. Before it even begins, the 112th Congress is starting to feel a little like Alice in Wonderland.”

Like Alice, Congressman, it appears you’ll have to sit through a tea party.

Tribal Claims

Yet another legislative debate has begun concerning state recognition of Vermont’s indigenous tribes. In past years the process has left many Native Americans and their allies feeling frustrated and betrayed. Will this time be any different?

That’s the hope of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, the members of which will formally recommend the state recognize the Elnu and Nulhegan tribes, according to VCNAA chairman Luke Willard — himself a former chief of the Nulhegan tribe. An independent historian vetted both applications.

More Vermont tribes are lining up, including the Koasek and the Missisquoi.

Media Notes

Former “True North Radio” host Rob Roper has launched True North Reports, a daily e-newsletter and website devoted to covering the legislature from a conservative point of view.

Roper, the former chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, halted the daily radio program after last fall’s election.

Roper is working part time as TNR’s news director, while Angela Chagnon of Burlington is the site’s full-time reporter. Last fall Chagnon ran for a seat in the Vermont House as a Republican and lost, to Democrat Mark Larson.

Roper hopes to have TNR’s website up and running next week. It’ll be a for-profit enterprise, which means he’ll be selling ads to pay the bills.

Meanwhile, the search continues for two new scribes at the Vermont Press Bureau. The bureau covers the Statehouse and state administration for the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

Peter Hirschfeld is the lone holdover from last session’s bureau; Louis Porter and Dan Barlow have both since departed to work for lefty nonprofits.

Pitching in to help report on legislative happenings is Herald heir Rob Mitchell. He’s also interviewing press-bureau prospects, and plans to hire at least one investigative reporter.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Bio:
Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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