Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont stopped in Greeville to promote his 2020 presidential campaign. Matt Burkhartt, The Greenville News
The West End is Greenville’s epicenter for the pressures of gentrification, and it was from that platform Friday that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke on what he considers solutions to an affordable housing crisis that he said spreads across the country.
“This is an issue, again, we don’t discuss enough,” Sanders told a crowd of about 200 at the West End Community Development Center on South Main Street during an event billed as a forum on poverty. “Believe me, it’s not just a Greenville issue. It’s a national issue."
The 77-year-old U.S. senator from Vermont referenced his time as mayor of the city of Burlington to answer a specific question about how to solve negative impacts of gentrification on the West Greenville and Greater Sullivan neighborhoods.
“The bottom line is, we have to say before we can even come up with a solution what we want," he said. "And that is that working people have a right to continue to live in the communities that they love and where they grew up."
Three concepts emerged, the first of which is an effort the city of Greenville created two years ago — a housing trust fund.
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during a roundtable discussion on poverty at the West End Community Development Center Friday, April 19, 2019.
(Photo: JOSH MORGAN/Staff)
In Burlington, Sanders said the city subsidized construction of affordable housing that could only be sold later at a marginally higher rate. The concept has been used in Greenville communities such as Viola Street.
The other two proposals haven’t been implemented here — requiring developers to provide a certain amount of affordable housing in developments, often referred to as "inclusionary zoning," and laws mandating rent control for working-class renters.
"If you want to build fancy housing, that’s fine," Sanders said in reference to requiring developers to aside affordable units. "But you’re going to have to build a certain percentage of affordable housing."
Rent control is a concept the senator said he grew accustomed to as a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, and is used in cities like San Francisco to prevent landlords from raising rents at exorbitant percentages each year.
"People have a right to live in rental units which are affordable," he said.
The gentrification question was the only question posed in the forum as lengthy opening expositions by panelists that included actor Danny Glover and prominent social justice philosopher Cornel West took up most of the time before Sanders headed down the street to the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre for a traditional campaign rally.
The sun peaked out for a spell as an overflow crowd milled about on the Peace Center plaza to hear Sanders speak on broader themes such as wealth redistribution, universal healthcare, voting reform and racial justice.
The trip to Greenville highlighted Sanders’ effort to appeal to the minority community, a point in his previous campaign three years ago that pundits said was a weakness in his effort to build a broad populist coalition and contributed to his inability to overtake Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
West, a democratic socialist who has been critical of Clinton and former President Barack Obama for not advocating more for social and economic justice, said Sanders will challenge the "milquetoast" position of his Democratic primary opponents.
"Who are they really and who has been consistent?" West said.
Black activists locally and nationally exclusively introduced Sanders at the rally and participated in the panel at the West End center.
The Rev. James Speed, pastor of Allen Temple A.M.E Church that oversees the West End center, said that Sanders joined every "red-blooded Democrat" running for president by coming to the center.
The Rev. Stacey Mills spoke on the opportunity local churches have to unite together and buy properties, like his church, Mountain View Baptist, did with 25 lots on Cagle and Temple streets.
The church is being patient and developing a master plan for how to provide affordable housing on the land, he said.
"We’re not waiting for developers outside of the community to tell us what we should do with our property," Mills said.
Traci Fant, a black Greenville activist, said that housing for the poor can be helped with justice reform so that prisoners have a chance to integrate into society once released.
"The system of incarceration and re-incarceration must end," Fant said. "When someone has a felony, they can’t get a house."