Sanders’ Housing Plan Challenges Progressives

by on September 24, 2019

Sanders’ Attacks Exclusionary Single-Family Zoning

Bernie Sanders’ new housing plan has been described as providing “The New Benchmark for Progressives on Housing.” It is a bold call for national rent control and just cause eviction laws, over a trillion dollars for building affordable housing, a speculator’s and vacancy tax, and much more.

Sanders’ plan also specifically attacks exclusionary zoning, an elitist and often racist strategy to prevent new apartments in single-family zoned neighborhoods. Despite its reactionary impacts, such zoning is backed by many “progressives” in blue cities.

In fact, as I detail in Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, “progressive” support for exclusionary zoning in Austin, Berkeley, Boulder, Cambridge Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities keeps these policies in place. And as I also show in the book, preventing apartments in these exclusionary neighborhoods has been a far more common cause of gentrification than new housing development.

Sanders’ deserves huge credit for attacking policies backed by some of his supporters. His assault on exclusionary zoning even indirectly targets politicians he has endorsed.

For example, in Cambridge, Massachusetts housing advocates proposed an Affordable Housing Overlay  to increase density for affordable housing citywide. Six votes on the nine member council were required for passage. But this September it only had five votes. Three of the four “No” votes were from Council members who Sanders endorsed in the November 2017 election.

Sanders’ plan should mean he will stop endorsing pro- exclusionary zoning candidates in the future.

Opening Up Gentrified Neighborhoods

According to Sanders’ new benchmark for progressives, “We must also ensure that wealthy and exclusionary neighborhoods do not prevent new development, forcing gentrification and displacement in low-income and minority areas. … Restrictive zoning ordinances are a racist legacy of Jim Crow-era efforts to enforce segregation.”

Let’s talk specifics. When Sanders talks about wealthy and exclusionary neighborhoods  preventing new development, he’s speaking about such Los Angeles areas as Westwood, Bel Air, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Venice, and West Hollywood. And San Francisco neighborhoods like Noe Valley, the Haight Ashbury,  Alamo Square, Bernal Heights, the Inner Sunset, the Marina and too many others to name.

Sanders sees nothing “progressive” about banning new apartments from these gentrified neighborhoods. Yet these upscale areas depend on “progressive” political support to maintain their exclusionary status.

I share Sanders support for both strong rent control and increased density. Yet some pro-rent control activists oppose the latter. They claim increasing density is a ruse for promoting “gentrification” while taking no action to open already gentrified neighborhoods to new apartments.

Unlike some of his supporters, Sanders recognizes apartment bans have been “forcing gentrification and displacement in low-income and minority areas.” When people calling themselves “progressive” oppose increased density for affordable housing or building apartments in upscale areas, they are using their credibility as “progressives” to defend luxury homeowners and exclusionary zoning.

And even worse, to keep tenants out of high-opportunity neighborhoods.

Those opposing Scott Wiener’s SB50 on the grounds it will cause gentrification are either uninterested or oppose opening already gentrified neighborhoods to low-income, working and middle-class tenants. This can be done in a variety of ways, from building 100% affordable apartments to the use of density bonuses and inclusionary housing plans to bring affordability to market-rate projects.

“Progressives” who only see increased density and heights through a gentrification lens help the rich keep the working and middle-class out of their elite neighborhoods.   In contrast, Bernie Sanders, a true progressive, has made such economic and racial inclusion his goal. Sanders’ plan vows to “end exclusionary and restrictive zoning ordinances and replace them with zoning that encourages racial, economic, and disability integration that makes housing more affordable.”

Rent control advocates should embrace Sanders’ call for economically integrating upscale neighborhoods. Sanders has made clear that political alliances between pro-rent control politicians and pro-exclusionary zoning luxury homeowners is not part of the new “benchmark” for progressives.

And I do not read Sanders’ plan as only talking about integrating neighborhoods. He is also talking about opening up housing opportunities for the non-rich in progressive cities.

Cities like Santa Monica, which plans to convert its airport into a park rather than a major opportunity site for affordable and middle-class housing. Santa Monica’s  restaurant, hotel and city workers cannot afford housing anywhere near the city, but the “progressives” who run the city apparently don’t care that they subject these workers to long car commutes.

Ignoring the housing needs of city workers goes directly against Sanders’ plan. Yet I suspect many Sanders supporters back the park proposal; perhaps reading his plan will awaken them to their error.

Housing and Green New Deal

Sanders also breaks from some of his anti-housing supporters by recognizing the green impacts of infill housing. His plan will “prioritize projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create walkable and livable communities, and reduce urban sprawl.” Sounding a lot like a YIMBY, Sanders’ plan also states “We need to make federal housing and transportation funds contingent on remedying these zoning ordinances and coordinate with state and local officials and leaders to ensure equitable zoning.”

I hope that means Santa Monica won’t get any transportation funding for creating a park on the former airport rather than housing for its workforce.

According to Meagan Day’s Jacobin article, Sanders’ “campaign team assembled his plan after months of talks with activist and community groups focused on housing justice. It closely tracks the ‘A Home to Thrive’ plan put forward by the group Center for Popular Democracy, particularly its organizational arm, CPD Action.”

I found CPD’s connecting land use policies and the Green New Deal very encouraging. It’s a great sign that Bernie Sanders has embraced it.

The good news about a progressive icon like Sanders backing infill housing is that this feature of his plan does not depend on his election for implementation. Austin, Berkeley, Cambridge, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco Seattle, New York City and other “progressive” cities could end exclusionary zoning before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Now that Sanders’ has set the benchmark, what are “progressive” elected officials waiting for?

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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