Mayor Jesse Arreguin envisions respect, collaboration for Berkeley’s future

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Karen Chow/Staff

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While newly elected Mayor Jesse Arreguin was moving into his new office at Old City Hall, members of the homeless encampment outside were moving out.

Less than 24 hours after Arreguin swore in as mayor, city officials disbanded a homeless encampment without his prior knowledge. Arreguin was surprised and upset.

This was at least the third time that the city had disbanded a homeless encampment in the past two months, but the first during his tenure as mayor. He had hoped that the encampment would remain in place until he could implement his plan to address Berkeley’s homelessness crisis, which begins with a six-point item that will be introduced at Berkeley City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday.

He described this plan as a “a monumental shift in council policy and council priorities on homelessness.” His plan to address homelessness is indicative of a new direction he envisions for Berkeley.

During election season, Arreguin ran a grassroots campaign that trailed opponent Laurie Capitelli’s in donations by more than $10,000. Now, he sees his election, as well as the ascension of three other self-proclaimed progressives to City Council, as a mandate for change.

“Now that we are in office and have a five vote majority on the City Council, we have to follow through,” Arreguin said.

Some of the change he hopes to enact with his item on homelessness is the authorization of camping on designated public property. The passage of the item would also repeal an ordinance restricting the storage of belongings on sidewalks.

“We should be focusing our limited resources on actually developing solutions rather than criminalizing the condition of being homeless,” Arreguin said.

For long-term solutions to homelessness and preventative measures, Arreguin’s office will develop a comprehensive agenda in the coming months. Arreguin hopes to develop a plan by the beginning of January for a navigation center, which would offer centralized homelessness resources.

Many view Arreguin’s approach to leadership as one focused on providing opportunity through progressive politics.

“You’re going to see a Berkeley that is going to live up to the history of its culture,” said Gus Newport, who served as Berkeley’s mayor from 1979 to 1986.

Arreguin said as mayor, he is in a unique position to help facilitate regional dialogue and collaborative solutions for the Bay Area, not only concerning homelessness but also affordable housing and displacement.

Funds from recently passed Measures A1 and U1, which increase taxes on property value and property owners respectively, will help to bolster county and city resources for affordable housing in the coming years.

There’s a lot that we need to do as a community to build housing that is really equitable and will address needs of not just the people that can afford luxury housing, but our low- and moderate-income families,” Arreguin said.

Some, however, are uncertain about how developers and property owners fit into Arreguin’s vision.

As mayor, Arreguin will pursue further regulation on housing, including the potential development of a mandatory inspection program and the adoption of policies designed to prevent tenant displacement.

Capitelli previously said he anticipates Arreguin will scrutinize housing development more closely, noting that “time will tell” how developers will respond and if they will be able to afford these changes.

I’d have to wait and see until he makes more specific proposals,” said Sid Lakireddy, president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, in regard to the effect that Arreguin’s leadership will have on the housing market.

Despite the concerns of some members of the Berkeley community, unity remains one of Arreguin’s central goals. Given the results of the national elections, Arreguin says that it is “all the more important now that cities ban together and that we work cooperatively and regionally.”

One of his first moves of this nature, Arreguin said, would be to organize a taskforce of local mayors to strategize against the closure of the Berkeley campus of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, which is slated to consolidate with its Oakland campus before 2030. The campus provides the only emergency room in the city.

“Especially given that we are prone to a number of natural disasters, there’s a really critical need for us to have an emergency room in our communities,” Arreguin said.

Arreguin also wants to unite City Council itself around a common set of goals. He added that under his leadership, the council will be “a completely new environment,” centered around respect and collaboration.

To extend this collaboration to the citizens of Berkeley, Arreguin is committed to making the City Council more accessible. He plans to hold monthly office hours, and to introduce town hall meetings in each district.

Additionally, Arreguin hopes to incorporate social media into the process of public comment. The city will be launching an online civic engagement platform called Peak Democracy to facilitate this.

“I want to make sure that every council member has the opportunity to speak, and that everyone has an opportunity to be heard, and that people are treated with respect,” Arreguin said.

Because Arreguin has a broad base of support and has extensive experience in local politics, Newport believes he will be able to actualize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of a “Beloved Community.” Newport described this as a community of “social justice and peace” in which “all people will have to learn to live side by side.”

To District 7 Councilmember Kriss Worthington, this is the most hopeful time in the past 20 years of Berkeley’s government.

“(Arreguin’s) potential is so immense,” Worthington said.

Contact Aleah Jennings-Newhouse at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ajn_dc.