‘Old Bum for Mayor’ Guy ‘Mike’ Lee focuses on Berkeley housing issues

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Editor’s note: This is one installment in a eight-part series on this year’s candidates for Berkeley mayor. Read about the other candidates here.

Guy “Mike” Lee is asking residents to vote for him this November — “Old bum for mayor.”

Lee first came to the Bay Area at age 13, leaving his home in Portland, Oregon, to stay with an uncle in Daly City. When he was 17, he moved to the area permanently and has since spent much of his time living on the streets of Berkeley.

With a love for the city and a fear that it has been taking turns for the worse, Lee decided to run for mayor because he feels Berkeley is abandoning many of its citizens’ needs.

“I’m a guy that’s about what is fair and just,” Lee said. “There are things that happen in this town that really irk me.”

Lee has been a political activist throughout his life. In 1991, he, along with dozens of others, occupied People’s Park, protesting the university’s plan to build a volleyball court. The next year, Lee was later sued by the university for property damages related to the protests. The suit was later dropped in 1994, after the university, Lee alleged, obtained a restraining order against him and the other organizers.

He believes his status as a professional protester rather than a professional politician makes him an ideal candidate for mayor of Berkeley, which he called a city with “no plan.” As mayor, Lee said he would better prioritize Berkeley City Council agendas and focus on cutting city spending.

But, as a homeless person, Lee believes that homelessness and housing affordability are some of the city’s most pressing problems. He has been living in an occupation camp in South Berkeley for the past few weeks and is currently in talks with city officials about establishing a sanctioned campground for the homeless to set up tents and tiny houses.

Mike Zint, a fellow camp occupant and founder of First They Came for the Homeless, said that while he and the organization cannot formally endorse Lee, he supports Lee’s campaign. Zint said that when Liberty City — a homeless encampment in front of Berkeley’s Old City Hall — was disbanded after occupants were arrested in December 2015, he and other organization members began to realize they needed a homeless person to run for mayor.

“Mike Lee, he’s the right type of person to do it,” Zint said. “He’s fiery, he’s not scared of the politicians, he’ll say what’s on his mind and he’ll bring attention to the things that the other politicians are not gonna pay attention to, such as gentrification (and) homelessness.”

Additionally, Lee said as mayor, he would work to prioritize refurbishing buildings over creating new structures to fight housing issues — a plan he said is more efficient — among other housing policies.

“There’s hundreds of empty buildings out here that landlords and property owners like to just sit there,” Lee said. “I would definitely look into crafting an eminent domain law to go get those buildings for nonprofits and turn them into affordable housing.”

A January 2016 city report estimated that on Jan. 28, 2015, there were an estimated 834 homeless people in Berkeley, though Lee said this count does not include homeless students. Although no official estimates for the campus exist, he and others believe homeless students make up a significant portion of the overall student population.

Despite his past legal battles with the UC Board of Regents, Lee has been a long supporter of the spirit UC Berkeley students bring to the city. In the 1990s, he was a friend of Andrew Martinez, a student who rose to national attention for attending classes naked. He said he wants to work with the students to improve conditions on campus.

Lee also wants to keep the Berkeley Police Department accountable, making sure that the Police Review Commission remains independent with the added ability to hire and fire officers. He added that police interactions with Berkeley citizens should be expanded to improve community relations.

Regardless of the outcome on election day, his supporters are glad Lee ran because he kept a spotlight on the issues most important to his constituents that might have otherwise been ignored.

“I was concerned that the so-called progressives were gonna move away from us, which is exactly what started to happen,” said fellow camp occupant Michael Diehl. “Mike Lee has been able to keep those issues in the middle of debate — our issues around housing are central in the debate, and that wouldn’t be happening if he wasn’t running.”

Pressly Pratt is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @presslypratt.