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‘To Defend Berkeley’s Values Against a Hostile Administration Is Surreal’

In Berkeley, millennial mayor Jesse Arreguin tries to defend free speech, solve homelessness, address housing shortages—and pay his rent. 

Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguin.

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Name: Jesse Arreguin
Occupation: Mayor of Berkeley
Age: 32
Residence: Berkeley

San Francisco: You’re 32 years old and the mayor of one of America’s iconic cities. How’s that feel?
Jesse Arreguin: I was just in Europe, and everybody knew Berkeley as a center of academic thought and political action. To defend Berkeley’s values against a hostile administration is surreal, but an enormous honor and privilege.

The battles between the far left and right—and the police’s response to them—drew national media attention. Did the city handle them appropriately?
I don’t think any of us expected Berkeley would be the focal point for these extremist groups on both sides to come to our city to fight. The campus and city have gone above and beyond to facilitate the right of people to engage in political expression. The last demonstration, when Ann Coulter was supposed to come, happened without any violence. People on both sides came and debated. That’s what we want to allow.

Were the police aggressive enough in stopping violence?
Earlier this year, we settled a lawsuit with people involved in the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests. Compare that to how the police responded here, and it’s a sea change. In that situation, they literally exhausted all their tear gas. They used batons on ministers and journalists. There was an overreaction. In this case, it was a very thoughtful strategy about when and how to engage.

You’ve spoken of homelessness as one of your chief priorities. Do you think you’ve made progress?
When I came into office, we were facing one of the coldest and wettest winters on record. We had roughly 600 unhoused residents in Berkeley. There was a real concern that people would die in the streets—several did. We activated our emergency operations center, the team that we would activate were there a major fire or civil unrest. We were able to serve hundreds of people and probably prevent more deaths.

Can the neighborhood-preservation arguments people have made in Berkeley for years be squared with the urgent need for more housing?
Past philosophies on housing have to change with the reality of an unprecedented housing crisis. I have certainly experienced the housing crisis firsthand. When I was young, living in San Francisco, my family was evicted several times. As a renter and a millennial, I am definitely a victim in this housing crisis. I can’t move anywhere because rents are too expensive. Many of my friends and other millennials are also struggling to find affordable housing in Berkeley.

Yet on two recent developments, you’ve voted to curb the number of units being proposed. Wouldn’t city government want more, not fewer, units?
I did vote with the majority of the council to oppose 1312 Haskell Street because I felt that the project did not meet legal requirements and there was a better project that would have worked for the builder and the neighborhood. However, I have voted for nearly every other development application that has come to the city council since I took office. While people may claim that the council is antidevelopment, we have approved lots of projects, and we want more housing built. 

On 2902 Adeline Street, working with Councilmember Ben Bartlett, I helped lead negotiations with the builder to achieve a community benefits package. In the end we were successful in getting a new 50-unit project approved and achieving more onsite affordable housing, including moderate-income units and funding for anti-displacement. The project we approved has the same number of units as was originally proposed by the developer. So I did not vote to decrease the number of units in that project. Just wanted to clarify that.

How do you feel about plans to build housing at People’s Park?
It’s the university’s property, but I support their vision that would develop the park to have supportive housing, student housing, and open space. Now’s the time to talk about People’s Park.

Speaking of which, you must be very excited that Raleigh’s and Intermezzo [now Mezzo] on Telegraph reopened.
It’s really cool. Finally, that corner is being reactivated. It was a dead zone for quite some time. The city really moved the permitting forward quickly. The next task is getting that rat-infested lot on Telegraph Avenue developed. The city has liens on that property for $750,000. We’re going to foreclose soon. The owner has been dragging his feet for 20 or 25 years. It’s absurd, but we’re going to solve it.

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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