Berkeley won’t significantly improve the quality of its roads over the next couple of years, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said, after voters rejected a $650 million infrastructure and affordable housing bond measure in November.
But as the dust settles on the unsuccessful campaign for Measure L, Arreguín and others — including the bond’s leading opponents — are already developing plans to put new proposals before voters in 2024 to raise money for those needs.
“We’re going to have to kind of tread water for now while we figure out a longer-term solution, but we’re going to have to figure something out,” Arreguín said in an interview. “Measure L not passing cannot be the end of this conversation.”
Size, scope may have doomed Measure L
The defeat of Measure L — which 59.4% of voters supported, short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass — amounted to a rare rejection from Berkeley voters who have approved a parade of other bond measures focused on housing and infrastructure in prior elections.
Measure L differed from those bonds in its size and scope, however.
While they at one point considered putting multiple measures before voters, Arreguín and the City Council ultimately decided to group a long list of local priorities — from funding more affordable housing at two BART stations to street paving to restoring public facilities such as the Civic Center and Marina — into a single $650 million package. The result was an all-or-nothing measure that was by far the largest in Berkeley’s history.
“The package was probably too big, and that concerned some voters,” Arreguín said. “We needed to maybe have different measures focused on different infrastructure needs.”
The bond didn’t just face resistance from those who opposed raising taxes — two City Council candidates who ran on progressive platforms came out against it, as did, perhaps most crucially, supporters of past bond measures who argued Measure L was the wrong way to address Berkeley’s infrastructure needs.
‘Some projects are going to be on hold’
With the surge of new funding Measure L would’ve delivered off the table, Arreguín said city officials will need to keep in place a plan to raise Berkeley’s annual street maintenance spending to $15 million per year. That’s enough, public works officials say, to keep the overall quality of local streets from declining further — but not to make headway on a paving backlog estimated at $268 million.
The city will continue to fund affordable housing developments, including at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations, through the 2018 bond Measure O. It can also use money from sources like the Housing Trust Fund — which developers pay into if they don’t include affordable units in new buildings — and a new tax on vacant homes approved by voters this year that could raise as much as $6 million annually.
All of Measure O’s funds have been committed to projects, however, so Arreguín said Berkeley will be limited in its ability to fund new affordable housing.
Similarly, he said, the city’s ability to pay for other aspects of its infrastructure and public facilities will be limited without Measure L’s bonds.
“Some projects are going to be on hold, like the Civic Center revitalization, until we can figure out how we will fund it,” Arreguín said.
2024 could see regional, local spending measures
For many voters, the last thing they want to think about once one campaign season ends is the next election. But 2024 is shaping up to have proposals that could pick up where Measure L left off.
The Association of Bay Area Governments is working to put a $10 billion affordable housing bond before voters across the region’s nine counties that year, and Arreguín is playing a central role in the campaign as the association’s president. If it passes, money from the measure could flow to affordable housing projects in Berkeley.
Arreguín also backs a statewide effort to lower the threshold of support affordable housing bonds must achieve to pass, which could take shape in 2024. Currently those bonds only pass if at least two-thirds of voters say yes, but Arreguín and others want that lowered to 55% to make it easier to approve future affordable housing measures. California voters made that change for school bonds more than two decades ago.
As for streets, both Arreguín and the leader of the campaign to oppose Measure L, former parks and waterfront commissioner Jim McGrath, said they hope to put a measure on the Berkeley ballot in two years to fund paving projects.
“We focus on streets, maybe, in 2024 and then we focus on infrastructure in the future,” Arreguín said, though he didn’t say specifically what such a measure might look like. “We’re going to go back to the drawing board.”
McGrath, who led the campaign for the 2016 infrastructure bond Measure T1, said he decided to organize against Measure L this year because city officials wanted to pay for street repairs with one-time bond revenue rather than an ongoing funding source such as a parcel tax. He and other members of the No on L campaign now want to put a parcel tax for streets before voters.
McGrath argues that strategy would avoid the downsides of a bond — Berkeley wouldn’t have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in interest, more recent home buyers whose properties have higher assessed values wouldn’t be stuck paying far more than longtime owners, and officials could include exemptions for certain residents, like those with low incomes.
If that measure is on the ballot in two years, McGrath said, he’d campaign to pass it, not defeat it.
“Streets need to be fixed,” he said, “it’s the highest priority.”