It may not be at the top of the ballot, but there is an important race in this November’s election that I hope you’ll keep in mind as you decide where to vote and which candidates to support.
During my tenure as ASUC external affairs vice president, I helped push for the successful adoption of a supermajority student district as one of the eight City Council districts in Berkeley. For decades, Berkeley council districts were gerrymandered to make it effectively impossible for the student community to elect a councilmember. In 2002, a student and a recent alum ran in both the old districts 7 and 8. Both fell short, in part because their support was outweighed at the polls by homeowners in the surrounding precincts.
Now we have our student district, and this November is the first election in which the new lines are being put to the test. The new District 7 includes the campus, Telegraph Avenue, Southside apartments, Units 1 through 3, some cooperative housing and the fraternities and sororities. In total, the district is 86-percent student-age. Regardless of who is elected, the councilmember representing District 7 will have to be responsive to the campus community. That’s why we drew the district the way we did.
This district is the culmination of a multiyear campaign and the tireless advocacy of, among others, my predecessors Joey Freeman and Shahryar Abbasi. We held dozens of outreach meetings, mobilized hundreds of students and attended countless City Council meetings Tuesday nights to make our case — and we won.
We fought for the student district because, too often, questions raised by students are answered by nonstudents unfamiliar with our experiences. This is reflected in the fact that only one current member of City Council is under the age of 50 despite students making up nearly a quarter of the city’s population.
More important than questions themselves are the answers we’re getting from the city. We’re just not getting the results we expected on the issues that matter.
Rents are sky-high, and the city and university are not sufficiently stepping up to the plate to produce affordable, high-quality housing options near campus. The scarcity of housing options at a reasonable price is a matter of urgency for students; we need a councilmember who shares that sense of urgency. The proposed project at 2631 Durant Ave. speaks to the impasse. This 56-unit student-housing complex would replace an unsafe, dilapidated building — yet the project developer has encountered months-long delays and told The Daily Californian that the current councilmember for District 7 has been “very discouraging” and declined to even meet with him to discuss the project.
Telegraph Avenue has a rich history but fails to live up to its potential as a safe and welcoming commercial district for students, neighbors and visitors. Students want a mix of retail and entertainment options. While commercial vacancies have many causes and do not lend themselves to piecemeal solutions, the city must make it a priority to fill storefronts and help our commercial corridor meet its potential. That means streamlining the permitting process, making it easier for young entrepreneurs to rent office space and removing outdated quotas for certain types of bars and restaurants.
Southside continues to be plagued by above-average property crimes, muggings and sexual assaults. Many students feel unsafe walking home at night, and even when incidents do occur, they are unsure of how to navigate the reporting process. A shovel-ready project to fund new lighting on Telegraph Avenue was stuck in the city bureaucracy for far too long and has only recently begun to move forward. We need a councilmember who can work with police, the university, merchants, Greek-community members and other stakeholders to increase transparency, lighting and community-based approaches to policing.
We have a diverse student body and faculty who want to engage with the city on their own terms. Not everyone wants to choose a side between factions in city politics or identify with a particular political party at all. We need a councilmember with an open door who can talk with anyone about his or her ideas and aspirations, regardless of his or her background.
I continued the fight for the Berkeley Student District Campaign because I didn’t think the campus was being adequately represented by the current District 7 leadership. I still feel that way today.
City Council races in Berkeley are typically low-turnout affairs and can often be determined by fewer than one or 200 votes. Too many officeholders are counting on the student community — Greeks, co-op and dorm students and everyone else — to stay home and not participate. But if you register and cast your ballot here, your voice cannot be ignored any longer. While I’m no longer at UC Berkeley, I was greatly enriched by my decision to participate in the political process and help shape my surroundings. I’m counting on all of you to pick up the torch.
Safeena Leila Mecklai was the ASUC external affairs vice president from 2013-14.