“The political revolution is beginning,” Bernie Sanders told a room of cheering fans when he swung through Massachusetts earlier this week, “and this is what it looks like.” But if you care about holding down housing costs in the Boston area, you should hope Sanders is wrong. At least in Cambridge, the former presidential hopeful is lending his name to antidevelopment forces who are likely to make the city’s housing crisis worse rather than better.
The US senator from Vermont was in the Boston area Monday to support City Council and Board of Aldermen candidates endorsed by the Cambridge and Somerville chapters of Our Revolution, the grass-roots political organization that grew out of his insurgent 2016 campaign. Sanders’ decision to get involved in municipal races in these two cities, where the political spectrum runs from very liberal to super-ultra-wicked-liberal, was bizarre to begin with; Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive icon who actually lives in Cambridge, hasn’t similarly inserted herself into these contests.
In Cambridge, Sanders and his local acolytes faced a choice between two groups of self-styled progressives: one group bent on easing the city’s housing woes by building more units, and another group defined by its vocal opposition to higher, denser private development. Sanders and Our Revolution Cambridge sided with most of the same candidates as the Cambridge Residents Alliance — the city’s most prominent antidevelopment group.
In certain quarters, thumbing your nose at The Man is more important than actually getting people housed. In the Trump era, progressive municipalities have rushed to declare themselves sanctuary cities — but the bigger challenge is to give more people a place to live.
Among the books most often named-checked in lefty circles, including by Sanders himself, is “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Author Thomas Frank’s thesis is that traditional Middle American voters have been manipulated, via their conservative social values, into voting against their raw economic interests and electing Republican politicians who do Wall Street’s bidding. Viewing this dynamic from the safety of the deep-blue coasts, progressives lament: If only people in Wichita could see what was good for them.
But Kansans aren’t the only people who follow their instincts toward policies that contribute to inequality.
In his speech, Sanders spent little time on local issues and dwelled instead on the predations of the Koch brothers. But spiraling housing costs are the single greatest driver of inequality in Greater Boston, and especially in a hot area like Cambridge. If you were lucky enough to own a home in the 1980s or ’90s, before an eds-and-meds-driven boom sent local real estate prices skyward, or if you’ve got enough cash up front for a stiff down payment now, your net worth can soar ever higher. But if you’re new to the market, or just not affluent, you’ll keep falling farther and farther behind, unless the production of new units catches up to the demand for new housing.
Progressives of all stripes can at least get behind the construction of more below-market-rate housing. Indeed, Sanders mentioned just that possibility in his speech. A city can’t just decree such units into existence, though. Unless public agencies expand their direct spending on below-market housing to once-unimaginable levels, the majority of people will continue to live in privately built units — and private market conditions will determine whether most people can afford to live in a community or not.
In today’s urban housing politics, there’s a corrosive assumption that if somebody’s making money off of development, it must be wrong. But throughout the Boston area, we could use a political revolution that lowers the barriers to building housing of any sort, including market-rate housing. That would be distinctly off-brand for Sanders — and for a thick slice of the Cambridge political spectrum. But it’s also what fairness and equality require.