Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín discussed the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing housing crisis and his view on policing during his State of the City address Tuesday night.
The State of the City address, usually held in the summer, was pushed back so the city could focus on its response to COVID-19. Instead of a traditional speech, Arreguín answered questions from Berkeleyside’s senior news editor Emilie Raguso, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Sarah Ravani and KQED housing reporter Erin Baldassari.
According to Raguso, Berkeley is unique in that it has its own health department, unlike most cities, and a recent “hot topic” has been whether this department is worth its $10.5 million budget.
“There are advantages to having your own health department,” Arreguín responded. “We can issue our own public health orders based on our own local conditions. One of the challenges, as you know, is data and coordination of our response.”
Arreguín said although Berkeley was one of the first jurisdictions to institute a shelter-in-place policy, increasing testing capacity, which is critical to opening schools, has been a challenge. UC Berkeley is home to thousands of returning students and has required extra coordination around protocols, he added.
“What we need is a huge federal infusion of dollars to not only support our public health response but also the economic response,” Arreguín said. “We will continue to fight elected officials throughout California for a new CARES Act.”
In response to a question about Berkeley’s involvement with Homekey, a state program that aims to create affordable housing through the purchase and rehabilitation of hotels and vacant buildings, Arreguín said the city is working with the county on acquiring a hotel and is also exploring funding for a housing project on University Avenue that would provide about 40 units of permanent supportive housing.
Baldassari questioned Arreguín on Berkeley’s history of single-family zoning, which she said is still a driver of racial segregation.
“That just goes to show how deeply ingrained systemic racism is in every aspect of our society, and now it’s clearly manifested itself in the housing crisis,” Arreguín said. “We need zoning reform, but we have to approach it thoughtfully and go neighborhood by neighborhood.”
Arreguín also mentioned the Sept. 30 groundbreaking ceremony at Jordan Court for a project that will build 34 affordable homes for seniors in Berkeley.
Raguso also asked Arreguín about public safety and whether he advocates firing police officers to reduce Berkeley Police Department’s budget, most of which goes toward staffing.
“I don’t want to subscribe to the phrase, ‘defund the police,’ ” Arreguín said. “What we’re really talking about is reinvesting funds or department budgets to support public safety broadly.”
Arreguín addressed the July 15 decision to create a Department of Transportation that will take over traffic enforcement from the police department, as well as a proposal to remove police from mental health calls, both of which focus on racial equity.
In his closing statement, Arreguín highlighted the community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“2020 is going to be etched in the history of our nation, and historians are going to look back at the decisions we made today, not just as a response to COVID but at the other issues of our time,” Arreguín said. “In these very dark Martian-like days, the light of Berkeley shone.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a question to Erin Baldassari. In fact, the question was posed by Emilie Raguso.