Mayor Jesse Arreguín gave his first address on the state of the city at Berkeley Rep on July 10. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Housing and homelessness, climate change and Berkeley’s sanctuary city status were central themes in Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s first State of the City address, delivered Monday evening at Berkeley Rep. An animated Arreguín spoke to about 250 people about Berkeley’s legacy of leading on progressive issues and the importance of continuing it amid “the darkness that has descended over much of our nation’s politics.”

“Ideas are sparked here. Movements are born here,” said Arreguín. “New innovations, from curbside recycling to curb cuts, got their start right here in Berkeley.”

He told the crowd of mostly supporters that he intends to “re-earn” the city’s reputation of progressive trailblazing, speaking about his administration’s accomplishments so far and his broad goals for the future.

Arreguín was elected in November along with several new council members who see eye-to-eye with the mayor, overthrowing the previous City Council majority that aligned with former Mayor Tom Bates. In his speech, Arreguín patted himself and his colleagues on the back for what he said has been a culture change at City Hall.

“I have made promoting civility, respect and decorum a priority,” he said. “Gone are the days of partisanship, name-calling and in-fighting.”

Early in his speech, Arreguín talked about the council’s efforts to bolster Berkeley’s sanctuary city status, including by developing a new rapid response network ready to spring into action if federal immigration agents come to town.

“As the son of Mexican immigrants and Berkeley’s first Latino mayor, this is very personal to me,” Arreguín said.

Arreguín also spoke about housing and development, perhaps the most polarizing issue in a city and region everyone agrees is mired in an affordability crisis. He said he hears almost every day from long-time residents, including many black and Latino families, who can no longer afford to live in the city or are seriously considering leaving it.

Berkeley residents wait for the mayor to begin his State of the City address. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Arreguín said while there are new housing projects in the pipeline, “I know that when many Berkeley residents see those new units going up, they might not see a place for themselves there.” He said the city should promote a balance of market-rate and affordable units, pointing to the forthcoming six-story building at 2902 Adeline St. as an example of such a balance. That project, approved by the City Council in May after rounds of negotiations between neighborhood activists and developer Realtex, includes some affordable and very affordable units and a $100,000 contribution by the developer to a new anti-displacement advocate position at the East Bay Community Law Center.

Arreguín said he is also proud of the $650,000 included in the new city budget for eviction defense and housing subsidies — and of the plan to build affordable and permanent supportive housing, along with more shelter beds and transitional units for veterans, at Berkeley Way. The council voted unanimously to prioritize that ambitious plan in June, though its success depends on securing more funding for the $90 million project.

The Berkeley Way project is not the only one of Arreguín’s plans that, if able to materialize, would fundamentally change the way the city supports homeless residents. Arreguín noted in his speech the inclusion of $400,000 in the budget for his and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn’s Pathways Project. The commitment is only a piece of what is needed to carry out the plan for a new shelter with relaxed rules for entry and associated on- and off-site programs to help participants transition into permanent housing.

Among Arreguín’s future housing goals, he said Monday, are the creation of a “small sites” program for the city to acquire buildings where tenants are at risk of displacement, a partnership with Berkeley Unified School District to build teacher housing, 600 new affordable units in the next five years and more attention on “the missing middle” — those who cannot afford to live comfortably in Berkeley but do not qualify for affordable housing.

Arreguín also spent some time on the city’s climate goals and accomplishments. Along with nearly 350 other mayors, Arreguín signed a pledge to uphold the Paris Agreement goals even though President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the international agreement to combat climate change.

“There is a lot we can do in local government that thankfully does not involve him at all,” said Arreguín to laughter from the crowd.

The mayor praised the work of the city and residents to greatly reduce Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions, an ongoing effort to meet the city’s Climate Action Plan goals.

Berkeley has made advances around renewable energy use, he said, and now “I want us to solarize our municipal buildings, to require private developers to include solar in their projects, and to create micro-grids at a neighborhood scale to promote renewable energy.” He noted that Berkeley is participating in the East Bay Community Energy program, which will offer residents an alternative to PG&E from more renewable sources.

City Council members and city staff applaud their colleague after his speech. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Arreguín also spoke briefly about supporting economic development, investing in the arts, developing a longterm infrastructure plan, fighting the closure of Alta Bates Hospital, supporting equity at Berkeley schools and improving the city’s relations with Cal.

“For far too long the city and university have had tense relationships,” he said. “While the university must be a good neighbor — we will hold them accountable to that — there is also an enormous opportunity to develop a stronger partnership between town and gown.” Arreguín said he believes he has “laid the foundation” for a strong working relationship with new Chancellor Carol Christ.

Finally, “I couldn’t address the state of our city without addressing the recent clashes and protests on Berkeley streets,” Arreguín said. He did not go into depth on the matter, but praised the Berkeley Police Department’s response to the violent far-right and anti-fascist rallies in Civic Center Park this spring.

The mayor closed his speech by recalling how he fell in love with Berkeley when he visited the Cal campus, where he later enrolled and became the first in his family to graduate college. He thanked his parents, who were in attendance, and said he never expected to make it to the mayoral office, having grown up watching politicians who did not seem to understand his family’s struggle.

The audience in the nearly full Peet’s Theatre was mostly comprised of Arreguín supporters, who applauded throughout the speech, along with several city officials, a School Board member and some regional officials.

Some attendees said they had voted for Arreguín but were dismayed when he voted in June to keep Berkeley police and firefighters in the controversial Urban Shield training program for at least a year. They said they had come to the speech hoping he would explain himself. In response to an audience member’s question about the matter, the mayor said he has convened a task force to research alternative training options.

Also in attendance were activists who have been critical of Arreguín’s response to the housing crisis, including from East Bay Forward, a group advocating for more development and density.

It is traditional for Berkeley mayors to give periodic addresses on the their progress and goals for the city, some annually and others less frequently.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...