Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.
By Jason Sibert
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) established himself as a political trailblazer in his two runs for the office of President of the United States in 2016 and 2020. He made a lot of items – affordable higher education, single-payer healthcare, a livable minimum wage, a more power collective bargaining system, paid family leave, and expanded social security for retirees – part of the mainstream political discussion, items not part of the discussion in the years of the Reaganite/Clintonite synthesis. However, and rarely mentioned in current media coverage of the senator, Sanders established a trailblazing record of a classic sewer socialist as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont from 1981-1989.
Truth be told, the Bernie of the 1980’s advocated for a more leftish politics than the Bernie of today. In that decade Sanders voiced the opinion that certain segments of the national economy, or at least the most capital-intensive sector, could be nationalized by the federal government in a democratic way. After being elected to the House of Representatives in the 1990s, his views changed to that of a Scandinavian social democrat, emphasizing social insurance (Medicare for all and expanded Social Security) and social welfare programs over nationalization.
When Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington, he stressed the idea that the city was not for sale, and this hit on an important tenet of sewer socialism – the city exists for residents and not for special interests. The socialist mayor made it a point to take on real estate interests. One of the key issues of his time as mayor was Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront. Tony Pomerleau, an influential local businessman, planned a mega-project that included a 150-room hotel, retail space, a 100-slip marina, and 240 condominiums in 18-story buildings. In his first campaign, Sanders pledged to kill that plan. After Pomerleau withdrew his proposal, Sanders backed another waterfront plan that included some commercial development, affordable housing, and generous public access. He called it a “people’s waterfront.”
As is the case with the history of sewer socialism, after his election, many in Burlington thought that Bernie Sanders would turn the city into a miniature version of the old Soviet Union. However, in time, many, including members of the business community, observed Sanders’ willingness to pay attention to a wide variety of views, a true perspective of one committed to democracy. The business community noted the mayor’s interest in development, even though he opposed developments that hurt middle- and working-class residents or impacted the lives of low-wage workers in a negative way. The Sanders administration provided new firms with seed funding, offered technical assistance, and helped businesses form trade associations – including the South End Arts and Business Association and the Vermont Convention Bureau. It also lobbied the state government to promote business growth.
In the early days of Sander’s mayoralty, Burlington’s downtown residents’ quality of life suffered from the lack of a supermarket in the area. The major grocery chains told city officials that they would invest in a new store only if they could build a mega-market that residents believed to be too large. So, the Sanders administration pushed the local Onion River Cooperative. With 2,000 members in its former location, some felt a move downtown was too risky. It turned out to be a good investment, and under Sanders’ successor it became City Market, a thriving enterprise with more than 9,000 members.
The Bernie Sanders Administraiton also went to bat for affordable housing. The city channeled a large portion of its federal block grant funds to nonprofits committed to that goal. A part of the strategy included support for the Burlington Community Land Trust with an initial $200,000 grant. The portfolio managed price-controlled houses, condos, co-ops, and rentals; and owns over 120,000 square feet of commercial space and nonprofit facilities. The land trust also owns residential real estate land. In turn, this makes the price cheaper for those being housed, including homeowners. In addition, market-rate residential projects were required to set aside 10 to 25 percent of the units at rents and prices affordable to families with modest incomes and to keep them affordable for 99 years.
Sanders promoted cooperatively-owned housing in the affordable housing battle. The Northgate Apartments in Burlington, an affordable housing project subsidized by the federal government for 20 years, went through a change for the better. Landlords found a loophole that allowed them to convert the buildings into market rentals or luxury condos. At the end of the story, Sanders ensured that Northgate became a housing cooperative.
Bernie Sanders’ days as mayor represented a contemporary chapter in the history of sewer socialism!
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.