With Sanders, affordable housing feels the burn

What do Bernie Sanders and Boston area development battles have to do with each other? Not much. Or at least they didn’t — until Vermont’s socialist senator parachuted into the middle of very local squabbles by endorsing slates of candidates in the upcoming municipal elections in Somerville and Cambridge.

Sanders’s effort is not only sowing discord among those who say he’s unhelpfully dividing allies in the two cities by picking and choosing among progressive candidates. Some say he is also throwing in with candidates who stand in the way of a stated goal of left-leaning activists in high-cost regions: growing the supply of affordable housing.

Sanders, who is trying to build a grassroots progressive movement off the energy of his 2016 presidential run, delivered a fiery speech to a rally of Sanderistas gathered in Somerville on Monday. But it’s his endorsement in the Cambridge city council race that’s drawing heat.

In keeping with biennial tradition, the ballot there is bursting with liberal candidates. One issue distinguishing them, writes the Globe’s Dante Ramos, is whether they support or oppose more densely-packed housing development in the city. Sanders has lined up behind a group of candidates that oppose more development and in so doing, says Ramos, is also siding with their anti-housing agenda.

While it’s popular among left-leaning activists to bash greedy developers, it turns out they are the ones who build most of the new housing where people live. It’s why a new movement of activists in high-cost regions like the Boston area has taken root that supports more development in order to increase the supply of much-needed housing. The YIMBY movement — with its Yes In My Backyard rejoinder to the Not In My Backyard opponents of development — says progressives who care about increasing the supply of housing, including affordable units, should get behind more development, not reflexively oppose it. (Here’s a recent Codcast conversation with two local YIMBY leaders.)

Ramos says Sanders is siding with those who will stand in the way of new housing in order to send a message to greedy developers. “In certain quarters, thumbing your nose at The Man is more important than actually getting people housed,” he writes.

Suburban land use and zoning regulations in Massachusetts have been doing their best for many years to constrict the housing supply and to kill the American dream of homeownership there for all but the most affluent. A similar anti-development NIMBY mindset is at play in cities as well, but it is advanced under the guise of a certain stripe of progressive political activism.

Ramos’s column appears to be the trigger for a debate that broke out this morning on Twitter, where local activist Jonathan Cohn said there is something “disingenuous” in the YIMBY label. Jesse Kanson-Benanav, a leader of the local YIMBY movement, says there’s nothing disingenuous about it and that YIMBYs want to see more housing built, including subsidized housing for those who need it.

It’s not an issue that gets settled in snippets of 140 characters. But the exchange unfolding there gives a flavor of the debate.


[The post has been updated to more accurately reflect the Twitter exchange on the topic.]


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