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The Bernie Sanders movement is of many minds. While Sanders’ own Our Revolution PAC stands inside the Democratic Party boat and seeks to steer it portside, a good number of his followers have abandoned ship. Rejecting the Democrats as fatally compromised, they flock to rapidly growing organizations farther left. In cities from Boston to Los Angeles, these are now a force to be reckoned with, occasionally electing their own members to office.

The far left rails against the opportunism of mainstream politicians, but its own practices can be similarly unprincipled. On housing, a central organizing focus, it builds support outside the left-wing base by opposing new building projects in city neighborhoods. Although the issue is framed as a battle against capitalist developers, its main appeal is to adherents of a system of class segregation – the zoning that keeps renters away from single-family residences.

Zoning is popular, and as recent electoral successes show, this strategy can succeed.  But it does so by allying young urban progressives and minorities with affluent homeowners – not a united working class, but a “woke” version of the Hillary coalition. As much as the far left claims to go beyond Bernie, the trajectory of its politics points toward Clintonism.


 

Homeownership breeds conservatism. Property ownership can lead people of modest means to identify with the economic elite, even when interests clash in the workplace and elsewhere.

The right has understood the political significance of land ownership since the 1920s, when zoning laws first empowered residential neighborhoods to keep apartments out. Herbert Hoover, who did as much as anyone to promote single-family zoning, argued that “There can be no fear for a democracy or self-government or for liberty or freedom from homeowners no matter how humble they may be.” Senator Joseph McCarthy, who saw public housing as “a breeding ground for communists,” avidly promoted Levittown-style construction.   

To this day, Republican platforms, otherwise harshly critical of government regulation, pledge an uncompromising defense of single-family suburbs and the zoning that protects them.  

This right-wing strategy was an unqualified success.  In the decades after the Second World War, Democrats who moved to the suburbs routinely mutated into Republicans.  Even within city limits, efforts to build public housing (especially, but not only, when it was to be racially integrated) could engender a sharp backlash.

By the 1970s, Democrats were making inroads into once-Republican suburbs, but they too embraced exclusionary zoning. Slow-growth environmentalists won control of Marin County, California, and clamped down so hard on housing construction that population growth nearly ceased.  In the affluent, well-educated suburbs of Boston and Washington, as historians Lily Geismer and Royce Hanson have recounted, tighter zoning was high on the agenda of newly ascendant progressives.

The 70s were a time of intra-party strife, with anti-war liberals and minorities at war with urban Democratic political machines and their supporters in labor. The upscale liberal constituency has since morphed into a party establishment. Today the Clinton alliance of well-off professionals and minorities is challenged by an insurgency of the economically deprived. 

The far left stood aside from this realignment. For decades, urban gentrification has been a main target of its grassroots agitation.  Inherent to this organizing focus is a reliance on zoning as a means of resisting neighborhood change. Much like the suburban liberals of the 70s, anti-gentrification activists broaden their political base by appealing to homeowners less concerned with social justice than with keeping newcomers out.

The doctrinal contradictions built into this strategy could be swept under the rug when its practitioners were out of the public eye. But in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders campaign, the far left has gained enough strength in some cities to contend seriously for elected office. Maintaining the illusion of leftist purity now requires fancy rhetorical footwork.  

An open appeal to homeowner disdain for apartments and their residents is out of the question; dog-whistles must be hidden in ostensibly progressive platforms. One common trick is to pin the blame for tenants’ travails on developers – creators of new homes – rather than the landlords who actually raise the rent. 


 

In 2013 Socialist Alternative, a Trotskyist group that refuses to endorse Democrats, elected Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council. Two years later, with a housing shortage driving rents skyward, the city’s developers and housing advocates compromised on a plan to loosen zoning while making developers subsidize affordable housing.  

One provision, allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones, immediately came under intense fire from right-wing columnists and upscale neighborhoods.  With homeowners facing off against the ill-housed, Sawant was in a bind.  At a quickly called press conference, she criticized the plan on the grounds that its other provisions went “nowhere near far enough.”  But when asked specifically about allowing duplexes and triplexes, she declined to take a stand.

This year, Minneapolis gives Socialist Alternative a chance to elect its second city council member.  Ginger Jentzen says that new construction has been “overly-centralized in neighborhoods with rising property values” – a description that happens to fit the district where she is running – and she dodges the question of whether new privately financed housing is desirable at all. Her campaign consistently blames developers for housing problems while her opponent, a labor-backed community organizer who won the Democratic nomination, makes a point of denouncing exclusionary zoning.

The rapidly growing Democratic Socialists of America shifted leftward this year and decided to endorse only avowed socialists running for office.  (The group’s politically diverse local organizations remain free to support non-socialist Democrats in their areas.)  Three city council candidates have won backing from the national DSA in November’s voting: Jentzen, tenant organizer Jon Grant in Seattle, and Green Party nominee Jabari Brisport in Brooklyn.

Grant joined Sawant in her critical stance toward the 2015 housing plan, which he now says “let private developers off the hook for millions and millions and millions of dollars.”  His opponent,  the 37-year-old left activist Teresa Mosqueda, favors loosening single-family zoning, while they differ over Grant’s call to require new buildings to include 25% low-income housing; she (along with local urbanists and the Sierra Club) says it would shut down housing construction rather than improve affordability. Grant, claiming to side with the union rank-and-file, attacks Mosqueda’s work as the political director of the state labor council and says she would be “another lobbyist at city hall that’s going to be cozy to developers.”

Brisport is even more hostile than Grant to new privately built housing.  His campaign centers on opposing a plan for 300 apartments, half of them subsidized, on the site of an old armory.  “My goal,” he  says, “is to have community control of all land” – the very principle that underlies suburban snob zoning.  This stance places him squarely against the DeBlasio administration’s citywide plan for affordable housing, which has run up against local opposition in neighborhoods rich and poor.


 

In short, the far left flunks its own purity tests.  Even as it denounces the Democratic establishment, it follows the path from insurgency to defense of exclusionary zoning that today’s elite trod years ago. It covers its tracks, moreover, with the very maneuver Hillary Clinton used in last year’s primaries – framing economic issues in identity terms to stigmatize demands for change.  

Here housing shortages are racialized – a view so much in intellectual fashion that Ta-Nehisi Coates can write almost in passing that “‘gentrification’ is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy.” By pointing to newcomers of a different race as the source of housing problems, foes of new apartments can portray themselves as defenders of poor minority neighborhoods.

Not only does this argument defy the economics of supply and demand, it is also stunningly ahistorical.  White working-class neighborhoods in northern cities have invariably gentrified before similarly placed black ones. San Francisco’s North Beach went upscale before the Tenderloin; Boston’s Jamaica Plain before Roxbury; Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens before Fort Greene. When gentrification is misunderstood in this way – a mistake not at all exclusive to the far left – it’s easy to forget that the housing crisis inflicts suffering far beyond hip urban districts. 

Bernie Sanders’ real challenge to the Democratic Party establishment last year was not about free college or Medicare for all, but about political coalitions.  Will the party unite the disadvantaged of all races against the billionaire class?  Or will it ally minorities with the enlightened professional class – a class that turns out, when the zoning of its own neighborhoods is at issue, to be much less than enlightened.  When the far left exploits hostility to new buildings as an organizing issue, it puts itself squarely on the right side of this divide.

Benjamin Ross is a transit activist in Maryland and author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

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Sources not linked:

Hoover quote: Hirt, Zoned in the USA, p 175.

McCarthy quote: Baxandall & Ewen, Picture Windows, p 91.

Coates quote: We Were Eight Years in Power, p 86.

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