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Talk of the Town

June 13, 2018
by Alissa Greenberg

You might not expect the mayor of Berkeley to show up for a meeting in dad jeans and running shoes. Or to be just 33 years old and living in a rented apartment with two roommates. Or to engage a reporter in a freewheeling discussion on some of the most controversial topics of the day without an aide or PR flack in attendance. But then again, Berkeley wasn’t expecting Jesse Arreguín ’07, who swept into office in 2016 in an upset victory over Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who had been endorsed by former Mayor Tom Bates.

It’s been quite a first year for the former city councilmember. As mayor, Arreguín has faced worsening housing and homelessness crises, a presidential administration increasingly hostile to California’s progressive politics, and intense public scrutiny after political rallies in downtown Berkeley turned into street brawls. California sat down recently with Arreguín to talk free speech, police bias, the unique challenges of governing Berkeley—and even what he pays for rent.

Alissa Greenberg for California: I want to start by talking about what it means to be the first Latino mayor of Berkeley. Can you tell me a little about your family history?

Mayor Jesse Arreguín: On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather was a lieutenant for Pancho Villa; they immigrated to the United States after the Revolutionary War in Mexico. On my father’s side, my grandparents immigrated to the United States, literally swimming over the Rio Grande to Texas, and were migrant farm workers in the fields of the Central Valley their whole life. My father and my uncles and aunts also worked in the fields. I remember when I was young hearing from my grandfather about his struggles as a farmer worker: the exploitation that he and other farm workers faced, the conditions living in labor camps and working in the fields. So literally, the revolutionary spirit is in my blood.

But I never thought that it would lead me to being mayor of Berkeley—let alone the first Latino mayor.

You studied at Cal before you got into politics here. What was your experience like, especially in terms of the town-gown relationship?

I have a unique perspective there because I was the city affairs director for the ASUC, the student government. So my job was to lobby the mayor and city councilmembers on issues important to students. At the time, there was a pretty fractured relationship between the city and the University. When I ran for mayor, I made having a strong, productive relationship with Chancellor Dirks (and now Chancellor Christ) a priority, and we meet every month.

Is there a point on which you still really disagree?

I think the biggest challenge that we face is the University’s expansion. Since 2005, there have been 11,000 more students that have come to the Berkeley campus, and there’s more students projected to be coming. Eleven thousand more people in our city definitely has an impact, whether it’s in terms of our police, our fire[fighters]—because we provide EMT services and fire services for the Berkeley campus—or our roads or housing market.

Being the mayor of Berkeley is a little odd, in that a big portion of the city is not your jurisdiction. For example, when Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak, you emphasized that it was a decision of the University, not the city.

People were confused. People were saying, “Why did you invite Milo to come to the Berkeley campus?” I’m like, “I’m not the Chancellor.”

So how do you navigate that strange dynamic?

I think the way to navigate it is by early communication, by trying to find constructive ways to work together. Certainly, I don’t think any of us expected that Milo’s presence on the campus was going to incite that kind of a response. So after that, we got together, we talked, we found ways for our police departments to collaborate more.

During that time, you were criticized for calling Milo a “white nationalist” and then walking that back and calling him an “alt-rightist” instead—

He’s both.

Sure. I’m curious what you think is the importance of language in today’s political landscape.

That was a really, really challenging time because I was concerned about the safety of my community, and it was clear that there was a concerted campaign by right-wing extremists to basically pick on Berkeley. I felt I needed to be very careful about what I said, because I did not want to make Berkeley more of a target or make myself more of a target. Speaking out but being responsible in terms of what statements I made—to make it clear that we don’t stand for hate speech, we don’t stand for people who want to commit violence, but in a way that did not inflame what was already a very divisive situation—was very challenging.

I do believe that we need to continue to respect the principle of free speech, especially in a city where the whole Free Speech Movement was founded.

I wonder, though—there were literal neo-Nazis who came to Berkeley, and I am a Jew. Should I have to listen to somebody who says, “All Jews should burn in an oven”?

We legally cannot say to them that they cannot say that, and moreover, unless we build a wall around Berkeley, we can’t prevent people from getting on the BART train or driving to our city. So, we had to make some tough decisions.

You were an activist before you were a politician. How do you balance your ideals with doing what’s possible and doing what your donors want?

Well I don’t make decisions based on who contributes in my campaign. Certainly, being a political activist and then being a councilmember, and having very strong opinions, is very different from being here. As mayor, you are responsible for the whole city—not just a district, but the entire community. It is an enormous responsibility, but also an incredible opportunity because everyone around the world knows Berkeley. They look to Berkeley as a city that is at the forefront of progressive action.

Before this interview, I asked friends for their opinions on Berkeley government. On one hand, they said, Berkeley is doing things like banning plastic bags and divesting from Trump’s border wall. And on the other hand it has trouble just fixing its potholes, housing its homeless. So, what good are these grand gestures if you can’t fix basic problems?

Well, what I say to them is that we are not doing a good enough job explaining to people what we’ve been doing. We are putting millions of dollars into fixing our streets—we passed an infrastructure bond last election, and we just approved $35 million in projects to improve streets, sidewalks, parks. We have an exciting program to combat homelessness that we’re going to launch soon to create a navigation center in West Berkeley and have an outreach team visit residents in encampments and connect them with shelter and services. We are looking at putting a $100 million housing bond on the ballot.

Part of that is the process of building consensus, I’m sure. What’s it like to govern a city with so many opinions and everybody arguing?

It’s going to sound crazy, but I actually like the public process. I actually enjoy running city council meetings. I think they’re fascinating discussions. For far too long, Berkeley city politics was very divided. One thing I’ve really prioritized is trying to bring people together. I think the work we’re doing and the new projects that we’re launching are a direct result of the climate of civility and collaboration that we foster.

I would love an example, if you’ve got one.

Recently, there was an ordinance that came to our city council about police surveillance technology, and I spent at least a month, two months, meeting with staff, the police department, the fire department, city manager; meeting with privacy advocates, to try to fashion a compromise that ensured that we could pass something that has strong protections for the privacy of citizens but at the same time gives the police the tools they need to do their job. And I think we achieved that compromise. Nobody got everything, but we accomplished 90 percent of what we wanted.

Policing is a hot-button issue right now, so what does it look like to compromise in that way?

First and foremost, my priority is to support our police department. I think there’s been a conflation of national problems with policing in Berkeley. We are not Oakland, we are not Ferguson, we’re not Baltimore, we’re not Sacramento. It’s been many years since we’ve had an officer-involved shooting, and we’re not seeing the types of abuses in conduct that we’re seeing in other police departments.

So you’re not concerned about racial bias in policing in Berkeley?

I’m definitely concerned about it. But we don’t know why there are disparate outcomes and stops based on race. I’m assuming implicit bias is an issue, just like it is with all of us. But every Berkeley police officer takes implicit bias training and has for a couple of years now.

We have commissioned a report that we’re going to get next month to get a better understanding. I really want to know, personally. Is it one officer? Is it five officers? Is it a particular area where this is happening? Disparate outcomes and police stops based on race are issues that we need to further investigate, and I say this not only as a mayor but as a person of color.

You’ve talked about how your personal experience shapes your political opinions. When you were running, you referenced your life as a renter and how that’s helped shape your understanding of the housing crisis.

I’ve been a renter my entire life; my family rented in San Francisco. On a couple occasions, we were the subject of owner-move-in evictions. It’s incredibly disruptive, being told you’ve got to move and not knowing where to go and having to scramble to find another place to live.

Can I ask what you currently pay for rent?

My rent is $600 a month, roughly, but I share a three-bedroom apartment with two other friends. I’ve lived in my apartment for about six years now and got lucky really. It was during the recession, so rents were much lower than they are now. I’m one of those many renters that can’t afford to move anywhere else. And, like a lot of people in my generation, I certainly can’t afford to buy a home. A majority of Berkeley residents are renters, and I am the first renter who has been the mayor of Berkeley in probably 30 years. Definitely that informs my perspective on housing policy.

Latino families are one of the groups most affected by this housing crisis, as well as by policies criminalizing immigrants. Do you feel like you’re doing enough to protect those communities?

We’re certainly doing what we can. One thing I did when I took office was reaffirm our sanctuary status and make it very clear that, even though we may lose $12 million in federal grants, we’re not going to collaborate with Immigration.

Still, there was a line in an article I read the other day that said in the Bay Area, specifically in Berkeley, we talk about how we are a sanctuary city and welcoming to everyone. But by saying “Let’s not build new housing,” we’re saying “Come to our city, and we’ll be a sanctuary for you if you are rich. Alternately, you can live on the street.” With all due respect, what’s the point of being a sanctuary city if undocumented people can’t afford to live here?

Well, undocumented people probably can’t afford to live in the new $4,000, $5,000, or $6,000-a-month apartments, so that’s why my focus has been on creating affordable housing and having policies to prevent displacement.

I don’t believe that building lots of expensive housing is going to solve our housing crisis alone. It’s going to require what I call “the three P’s”: production, preservation, and protection. I think continuing to build housing—and we have, we built 2,000 units of housing in the last ten years in this city, and we have thousands more going through our permitting process now—will help in the long run. But it’s not going to address the current crisis because that housing is not going to be affordable to most people. Then we end up having more homeless people on the streets, which is another concern. If you look at the statistics, over 70 percent of the recent homeless are people that were previously housed.

How do you feel Berkeley compares to other communities in dealing with homelessness? Are there places that are further ahead in solving this problem that could serve as inspiration?

Historically, Berkeley has been a compassionate city. We wanted to help people, but our focus has been on providing what I like to call basic needs and not on housing. The national model is “housing first,” and we really don’t have a housing first initiative. I’m trying to move us in that direction.

We’re not only working on launching our navigation center and having our team go out and do direct outreach with encampments, but we also are increasing what are called rapid housing dollars, so we can get people connected to housing. And [we’re] looking at creating storage for homeless persons. How can we look at vacant units and vacant properties? We have buildings, whole apartment buildings in Berkeley that are sitting vacant, which is nuts.

So then how do you propose to solve these housing problems in the short term?

The focus needs to be, first of all, on those cities that have not been building housing. Penalize those cities and find ways to work with those cities that are building, to find a solution that works for them. I had proposed that we look at some sort of cap-and-trade system. Every city in the Bay Area is assigned a certain number of units that they have to construct. We should tax those cities that aren’t meeting their regional housing allocation and put it into a regional housing trust fund that cities like Berkeley can use to build affordable housing.

I want Berkeley to continue to step up to build. I want to look at the North Berkeley BART, I want to look at Ashby BART, I want to look at other publically owned sites. But I do not personally believe that trickle-down economics is going to solve our housing crisis. 

Alissa Greenberg, M.J. ’16, is a freelance writer based in Berkeley whose work has appeared in print and online at TIME, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post. Her skills include navigating foreign transit systems, losing sunglasses, and detecting Boston accents from a mile away.

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