Berkeley leaders are poised to spend much of 2022 making the case for a ballot measure that could raise hundreds of millions of dollars to repair the city’s aging infrastructure and address its shortage of affordable housing.
Most voters want Berkeley to fix crumbling streets and provide more housing for low-income and homeless residents, early city polling on the issue found — but there are signs the appetite for another new measure to fund those needs may be waning.
Just about all of the details of the potential measure will be worked out over the coming months. Among the most important questions: How much money will the city ask voters for? Will it propose a combined measure raising money for both housing and infrastructure, or could the issues be split into separate questions on the ballot? And will the new revenue be raised through a bond or another method, such as a parcel or sales tax?
Broadly, though, city officials have started making the case that Berkeley needs a measure orders of magnitude larger than those residents have approved in recent years.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our people and invest in our infrastructure,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in an interview. “Just doing $150 million or $250 million is probably not enough to have the scale of impact we need.”
“I think we have to think big, because the need is big,” Arreguín added.
Between streets, sidewalks, civic buildings, stormwater systems and other pieces of local infrastructure, Berkeley has identified $1 billion worth of maintenance needs city-wide. A 2020 estimate projected the cost just of repairing Berkeley’s roads — which rank among the worst in the Bay Area, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission — will surpass $300 million by next year.
Then there’s the challenge of affordable housing. As the housing crisis has pushed less-wealthy residents out of Berkeley and onto its streets, the city has fallen far short of its goals for affordable housing construction in recent years — in part because organizations often struggle to patch together funding for projects. Arreguín said he also sees promise in the strategy of buying existing buildings to preserve their units as affordable housing and prevent displacement, but noted the options for financing those deals are limited.
The city is soliciting responses through Wednesday to an online survey about local infrastructure, and plans to send a questionnaire to residents about a potential revenue measure this month. The City Council is set to discuss its priorities for a measure at a Jan. 20 meeting.
From there, city staff will develop a draft plan for the measure in February, which will be updated through the spring with more public outreach. The City Council is expected to vote in June on whether to place the measure on the ballot.
Berkeley voters have supported several measures to address the two issues in recent years, approving two infrastructure bonds, an affordable housing bond and a tax for homeless services since 2012.
To Isabelle Gaston, a former City Council candidate who opposed prior bond measures, asking for another big round of funding is “redundant” and “excessive.”
“Berkeley really needs to live within its means,” Gaston said.
Backers of a new revenue measure — who point to street repairs, upgraded park facilities and new affordable housing as successes made possible by those prior taxes and bonds — contend the continuing need shows those measures weren’t ambitious enough. Arreguín called the $30 million raised for local infrastructure through 2012’s Measure M “a drop in the bucket,” while Berkeley Public Works Director Liam Garland said the city’s aging infrastructure “demands a bigger investment” than the $100 million raised with 2016’s Measure T1.
“What T1 has not been able to do is address the size and scale of the need,” Garland said. “T1 has been great, and we need more.”
Whether enough Berkeley voters agree could be another story, however.
City-funded polling that was conducted in October and made public in a memo last month found a majority of likely voters said they would be in favor of a hypothetical measure to fund both housing and infrastructure needs. But that support fell short of the two-thirds majority such a measure would likely need to pass. The share of respondents saying they would vote yes consistently hovered between 57% and 60%, with opposition ranging from 27% to 32%, when voters were asked about new taxes and bonds of varying sizes. The poll’s sample size was 500 likely voters, and it had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
“There is going to be work to do to garner enough support to pass,” Garland acknowledged.
Still, more than three-quarters of respondents said they considered “increasing affordable housing for low-income and homeless residents” to be a “very” or “extremely important” priority for the city, and 73% said the same about repairing streets.
While Arreguín said he understands voters’ hesitation about raising taxes amid the pandemic, he contends Berkeley must push for the funding to shore up infrastructure and provide more affordable housing. And after getting voters to approve measure after measure in a “piecemeal” approach over the past decade, he said, part of the city’s promise must be that “we’re not going to come back for another bond for a while.”