Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, waves at a rally in Iowa. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore / CC BY 2.0

If this is the Bernie Sanders “revolution” in action, you can count me out. 

As Sanders crisscrosses the country on his quixotic presidential campaign, the Vermont senator has added a new target to his list of capitalist fat cats he loves to rails about: luxury housing developers. 

But the nation’s best-known democratic socialist is going way beyond just hollering about greedy luxury condo builders to interject himself into all sorts of housing disputes in cities across the country, typically on the side of the local NIMBY group. 

And in the process, the self-proclaimed champion of the middle and working classes is managing to make the bad housing situation faced by those same people even worse in some cities, maybe none more so than Cambridge. 

His Endorsements Hurt Housing 

Cambridge is now grappling with the fallout from Sanders endorsement two years ago of a slate of city council candidates highly skeptical about efforts to build new, market-rate housing, with four of them making it onto the nine-member council. 

Sanders endorsements recently came home to roost in September with the defeat of an innovative – and badly needed – affordable housing plan in a city where the median single-family sale price so far this year is $1.5 million, and the median condominium sale price $769,000.

Two of the council members endorsed by Sanders voted against the so-called affordable zoning overlay, which would have given developers the ability to build higher if they committed to projects in which all the units were rented or sold at affordable, below-market rates. 

“I’m convinced that if Bernie hadn’t gotten involved two years ago, we would have had the six votes.”
David Sullivan, Bernie Sanders supporter and member of A Better Cambridge

The pair voted to table the plan, citing, among other things, increased residential density, the impact on trees and building design concerns, Mother Jones reports in a piece aptly titled, “Is Bernie Sanders a NIMBY?” 

“I’m convinced that if Bernie hadn’t gotten involved two years ago, we would have had the six votes,” David Sullivan, a Sanders supporter and member of A Better Cambridge, a nonprofit pushing for more housing, told Mother Jones. “So, it’s a really awful thing he did.” 

The NIMBY faction on the Cambridge City Council now wants to “revisit” the affordable housing overlay plan, so we’ll see what that means, though it sounds more ominous than hopeful. 

Apparently, this isn’t some one-time goof up by Sanders. 

An innovative zoning overlay that would have benefited only affordable housing projects was defeated in Cambridge, thanks to a pair of city councilors boosted to victory by endorsements from Bernie Sanders.  Photo courtesy of Andrew Cosand | CC BY 2.0

Sanders also has a track record of endorsing NIMBY candidates himself in the San Francisco Bay Area, where home and condo prices are even loonier than they are. 

The Vermont senator even gave his blessing to an effort to steal a state senate seat from Scott Wiener, the face of the Bay Area’s YIMBY (Yes In My BackYard) movement who pushed for new rules that open up the door to intensive new housing development around train stations and transit hubs. 

He’s endorsed all anti-housing people out here,” says Laura Foote, executive director of the San Francisco–based YIMBY Action, told Mother Jones. 

Plan Misdiagnoses Problem 

It’s not that Sanders doesn’t believe there is a housing crisis in this country. He does. 

In fact, his national plan does talk about finding ways to get local governments to loosen up zoning. 

At a core of Sanders plan is a massive expansion of the Section 8 housing voucher program, as well as a sweeping rent control plan. 

Sanders clearly has little use for luxury housing developers, despite the belief even among many progressives – and certainly among economists – that simply killing new, upscale condo projects would simply make a bad problem worse. 

The magazine offers up this revealing Sanders thunderbolt, delivered at the NAACP’s presidential forum over the summer: “We’re gonna tell the developers: You just cannot come in and build expensive condominiums!” 

In a telling tirade, Sanders earlier this month struck again, taking aim at Apple – one of his favorite targets. 

However, this time it wasn’t tax dodging that had Sanders riled up, but rather the tech giant’s $2.5 billion proposal to help build badly needed housing in the Bay Area. 

In Sanders view, it is Apple that helped create the housing crisis – by creating jobs? Spurring economic development? – and now is hypocritically stepping forward to position itself as riding to the rescue. 

“Apple’s announcement that it is entering the real estate lending business is an effort to distract from the fact that it has helped create California’s housing crisis,” Sanders said. 

Bernie Doesn’t Get It 

Sanders made no mention, though, of the real reason prices have gone haywire in the Golden State: restrictive local and state building regulations and the suburban and city officials who so eagerly use them to block new housing. 

Scott Van Voorhis

Yet in a country where the private market drives the economy – and with a pretty poor track record of building and maintaining public housing, replete with notorious failures like Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects – it’s hard for anyone who half a brain for basic math to figure out how Sanders government-centric housing solution would work. 

Several hundred thousand new condos, apartments and homes are needed in the Greater Boston areas alone over the next two decades. 

The only way to get that amount of housing built is to rely on the private market.  

To pretend otherwise is to live in a utopian dream world, which, as fun as it may be for some the aging hippies among us won’t bring down our crushing home prices and rents. 

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at  

NIMBYs of the World, Unite!

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min