Berkeley City Council discusses housing instability, restorative justice at meeting

Katherine Finman/Staff

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A vocal crowd of about 60 people gathered in Berkeley Unified School District’s boardroom for a controversial Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday night to discuss restorative justice practices for a housing instability incident, among other things.

The council began the meeting by honoring Emerson Elementary School Principal Susan Hodge, who will be retiring at the end of this academic year. She said her family surprised her with the commendation and brought her to the board meeting when she thought she was going out to dinner.

The council also honored a young Girl Scout who helped raise about $2,000 for helping refugees and the homeless by organizing a bike-a-thon in her community.

“It’s that kind of civic commitment that you are demonstrating now that we should all be inspired by,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín to the girl during the meeting.

Several representatives of city and regional departments, such as East Bay Municipal Utility District director Andy Katz and City Auditor Jenny Wong, presented to the board after the commendations. According to Katz, the water in Berkeley’s local schools is free from lead, and mandated testing was completed. He added that securing water for fire suppression would be a priority for the organization.

Wong shared the findings of an audit of the fire inspections program. She said the fire inspections team for buildings was understaffed, adding that of the 4,000 violations found at 1,300 properties, about 68 percent remain unresolved.

The board approved more than 43 motions at the board meeting, including one to fly a rainbow flag during the month of June in acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ Pride Month and one to endorse a plan from Strike Debt Bay Area, an Oakland-based activist organization, that seeks to “eliminate $1,000,000+ in medical debt for East Bay residents,” according to a press release from Strike Debt Bay Area.

The main topic of discussion for the night was the homeownership case of Leonard Powell, a Berkeley resident whose home was almost foreclosed over code violations and financial issues. The process was stopped and Powell was granted access to his home after community organizing from activist group Friends of Adeline and publicity from City Council members.

“I was intending on the city and the city’s integrity to help me,” Powell said. He added that he was discouraged about how inaccessible the process of trying to protect his home was.

Many members of the public, including Powell himself, requested an independent investigation by Wong over the issue. Councilmembers Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison expressed support for the idea, but Wong said she did not have the resources. According to Arreguín, Wong is an independently elected city official who does not take direction from the City Council. As such, it is unclear whether the audit will be performed.

Many people said they felt the issue was race-related, as Powell is a Black man.

“We (Black people) are not weak. We have the courage and the strength to keep pushing forward, even though they are trying to break (us) down,” Davila said. “To me, this is a black-and-white issue, as it always is.”

The council’s next meeting is on June 25, when it will vote on the budget for the city, according to Arreguín.

Contact Kate Finman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.