As we enter a new decade, we are faced with many important decisions that will impact the future of our city and the Bay Area for years to come. How do we reverse the trends of homelessness? How do we increase housing opportunities for people at all income levels? Can stronger regional collaboration help us address the issues that cities across the Bay Area are collectively facing?
As the mayor of Berkeley and the president of the Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional planning agency that works with local jurisdictions to promote regional collaboration, it is my responsibility to work with our community and stakeholders throughout the region to answer questions such as these.
Homelessness is perhaps the most vexing issue of our time. In the 2019 point-in-time count, the number of people experiencing homelessness spiked in Alameda County by 43% over the past two years. Berkeley was an outlier because of our extensive investment in services for homeless people and anti-displacement measures, but our city still experienced a 14% increase by comparison. The policies we have implemented have softened the impact of the crisis on our community, but a lot of work remains if we’re going to turn this troubling trend around. I believe that in order to be successful, much of that work needs to occur at the regional level.
Homelessness knows no boundaries: Members of our community who experience homelessness don’t necessarily stay in the community in which they first became homeless. Therefore, one clear objective is to duplicate the policies that have been successful here in Berkeley on a regional scale. Failure to do so will impede Berkeley’s efforts to turn this crisis around. For this reason, I have been working with regional and state officials on a more collaborative approach — one that will secure additional funding in order to get people off of the streets and into homes.
Affordable housing is deeply connected to homelessness, and it is another issue that Berkeley residents have identified as a priority. That is why, in 2018, we placed Measures O and P on the ballot, a $135 million bond for affordable housing and an increase in the transfer tax to generate $6-8 million for services for homeless people. Both measures passed, and we have already worked to fund projects and programs with these new sources of revenue. While Measure O will help increase the number of affordable units that we need to build, Berkeley, along with the entire Bay Area, remains woefully behind on its production of below-market-rate housing.
If we do not resolve this dilemma at the regional level, individual cities such as Berkeley will never be able to get out in front of this crisis and address the needs of our unhoused neighbors.
In October, AB 1487 was signed into state law, allowing us to move forward with the creation of a regional ballot measure to address affordable housing. ABAG will take the lead to craft a measure that all nine Bay Area counties will vote on in the November 2020 election. Taking this regional approach will help us direct funding to those communities in which the creation of affordable housing will be the most effective.
Along with Measure O and a prospective source of regional funding, these affordable housing funds can help us maximize the affordability of any development at the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations. State law changed recently to require zoning changes at BART stations in order to promote the creation of transit-oriented development. Even before this law was passed, I initiated a conversation to begin this process, and over the next 18 months, we will be finalizing plans that will create thousands of new housing units. I have called for 100% affordable housing at the Ashby BART station because I believe it will have the most impact on Berkeley’s efforts to alleviate the housing affordability and homelessness crisis.
As these efforts continue, we’re also developing the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which will help convert existing rental housing into long-term affordable housing. When a property owner places their property on the market, tenants and housing nonprofits would have the first right of refusal, meaning they will be given an opportunity to purchase the building. Expect to see this item come to City Council in the coming months.
A long-term issue that our society must prepare for is climate change. That is why I have been working on Berkeley’s Vision 2050, a 30-year plan to transform our infrastructure in a resilient and sustainable way. Through Vision 2050, we are hoping to foster a larger discussion about the kind of city we hope to have in the future, as well as the steps we can take together to get there.
We must be cognizant that Berkeley — like all cities — does not exist in a bubble. The actions we take have a ripple effect across the region. That is why we need a regional road map to help guide the growth of our communities. Plan Bay Area 2050 does just that, focusing on the economy, housing, transportation and environment. Specifically, it identifies policies and areas of investment that are needed to advance and promote equitable and sustainable growth in the Bay Area. As president of ABAG, I’m excited to work alongside communities and stakeholders throughout the region to develop proposals that will enhance the livability of the entire Bay Area.
This is a time for action and leadership. We face a growing homelessness crisis, housing inequity and climate instability. The people of tomorrow will ask if we did enough in 2020, if we were bold and if we made a difference. I want to make sure that the answer is yes.
Jesse Arreguín is the mayor of Berkeley and the president of the Association of Bay Area Governments.