In his annual state-of-the-city address on Monday, Berkeley’s mayor stressed the need for the city to live up to its core values, which he defined as diversity, opportunity, knowledge, and social justice. It’s a job made harder by the fact that 20% of Berkeley’s residents are living below the poverty level; the average price of a home, at over $1 million, is out of reach for most, and around 1,000 people in the city are experiencing homelessness.
Jesse Arreguín, 34, the city’s first Latino mayor who took office in December 2016, emphasized Berkeley’s commitment to being a sanctuary city on a day when the treatment of immigrants at a national level dominated the headlines; he outlined the actions being taken by his administration to address two of the city’s biggest challenges: lack of affordable housing and homelessness; and he spoke of how Berkeley had been tested by the extremist protests of 2017 but had succeeded in being a “leader in the resistance” by rising up as a community with a non-violent response.
Arreguín opened with a nod to the venue for the speech, Berkeley City College on Center Street, whose student body includes immigrants, refugees and undocumented students. He gave a shout-out to the steps the college is taking to take care of these students, including supporting the opening of the Undocumented Community Research Center, started by student Carolina Martinez. (Watch Berkeleyside’s short video story about the center.)
“We also picked this location because to me BCC is emblematic of Berkeley’s future,” he said. “Students who come here dream big, they strive for something better, and through education are working to improve themselves and create a brighter future. BCC makes that possible for thousands of young people including immigrants, students of color and first-generation college youth, like myself, as well as those re-entering the workforce.”
Speaking about the lack of affordable housing in Berkeley, which disproportionally impacts people of color, the mayor spoke of the need to provide homes for those who are increasingly being displaced due to soaring rents and home prices.
“What kind of a city do we want to be 10 or even 50 years from now?” he asked. “Will we continue to be a city where all people have the opportunity to call home, or will we be a city where the people who serve us food, make us coffee or build our homes cannot afford to live here?
The mayor announced a new package of measures for the November ballot to address the housing and homelessness crisis that, he said, the City Council will be advancing next month. They include a $135 million “general obligation bond for affordable housing,” as well as a 1% increase in the Real Property Transfer Tax on properties over $ 1 million, to fund homeless services.
“With this package — funding the construction of new affordable housing, the supportive services to help our homeless transition to self-sufficiency, and the resources for expanded emergency shelter, Navigation Centers, and mental health services — we can stem the tide of homelessness,” he said.
The mayor’s address was well-received by the audience that filled BCC’s auditorium. A few people had brought signs protesting participation by the Berkeley police in the controversial Urban Shield program. The issue is currently being debated by the city government and the mayor last week made a U-turn and withdrew his vote to ban BPD from the tactical exercises program.