John Davis remembers a meeting in 1986 when Bernie Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, confronted the owners of the city’s largest affordable-housing complex. The federal program that had subsidized the Northgate Apartments for 20 years had a loophole that allowed the landlords to convert the buildings into market rentals or luxury condos.
“Bernie pounded his fist on the conference table in his office and told the owners, ‘Over my dead body are you going to displace 336 working families. You are not going to convert Northgate into luxury housing,’” recalled Davis, who was Sanders’s key housing aide.
Under Sanders’s leadership, the city adopted a number of laws to stifle the owners’ plans. One ordinance required apartment owners to give residents two years’ notice before a condo conversion. Others gave residents a pre-emptive right to buy the units and prohibited landlords from bulldozing buildings unless they replaced them with the same number of affordable units. (These measures lowered the selling price of the property.) Sanders then worked with the state government and Senator Patrick Leahy to get the $12 million needed to purchase and rehabilitate the buildings. The city allocated funds to help the tenants hire an organizer, form the Northgate Residents Association, and start the process of converting the complex to resident ownership. Today, Northgate Apartments is owned by the tenants and has long-term restrictions to keep the buildings affordable for working families.
The battle over Northgate Apartments illustrates Sanders’s general approach to governing. In addressing this and many other issues, he encouraged grassroots organizing, adopted local laws to protect the vulnerable, challenged the city’s business power brokers, and worked collaboratively with other politicians to create a more livable city.
Now that Sanders is running for president, the eight years he spent as Burlington’s chief executive (1981–89) will be under close scrutiny. Although President Obama recently joked at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that Sanders is a “pot-smoking socialist,” he was actually a hardworking, pragmatic, effective mayor who helped transform Vermont’s largest city (population: 38,000) into a thriving town.
Thanks to the enduring influence of the progressive climate that Sanders and his allies helped to create in Burlington, the city’s largest housing development is now resident-owned, its largest supermarket is a consumer-owned cooperative, one of its largest private employers is worker-owned, and most of its people-oriented waterfront is publicly owned. Its publicly owned utility, the Burlington Electric Department, recently announced that Burlington is the first American city of any decent size to run entirely on renewable electricity.