Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín took the stage at the Ed Roberts Campus Oct. 5 to give the annual State of the City Address. While Arreguín announced his bid for Nancy Skinner’s state Senate seat in February, this speech provided more of a report on Berkeley and its most pressing issues. Chief among these were planned citywide initiatives for the environment, housing developments, public safety, houselessness and health.
While Arreguín is the financial front runner in his bid for state Senate, we were pleasantly surprised that he made no explicit mention of that campaign. He was quick to reminisce that it would be his last State of the City address, but he kept Berkeley in the spotlight through and through.
In his seven years in the seat, and even more on the city council, Arreguín has had several boulders to push. From the pandemic and its onslaught of consequential issues to a historic housing crisis sweeping the state of California, California mayors have had it rough and Berkeley was no exception. More often than not, they are first to be blamed when times get tough, but Arreguín has amassed a track record of putting in the hours to seek solutions.
While we remain critical of accomplishments touted in his final State of the City, we do recognize that Arreguín has both expressed and made strides to find solutions to many challenges Berkeley faces. We commend that Arreguín puts in the overtime, including his regional leadership as the president of the Association of Bay Area Governments.
However, there remains work to be done, and with a final year with Arreguín at the helm, his leadership will determine the foundation that the new leadership will start off on.
What seemed at times to be positioned like a victory lap looked also like a laundry list of outstanding issues that will impact the city for years to come following Arreguín’s departure. Like any annual check-in, this speech was full of grand declarations that attempted to demonstrate how far the city has come.
However, as the talking points were checked off the list, it became increasingly clear to us that there are several items that now face an uncertain future, even if they are moving in the right direction.
Read full takeaways below.
The city of Berkeley has made strides in climate policy, and while Arreguín’s speech detailed progress, much work remains to be done.
Berkeley has taken steps to recognize the climate emergency and effectively combat it since the 2000s. November 2006 marked a significant victory in the city of Berkeley’s strides toward environmentalism, as Berkeley residents voted to pass Measure G — a resolution which has worked to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of 2000’s levels by 2050.
In 2009, the city adopted the Berkeley Climate Action Plan, which outlined various ambitious goals, such as increasing clean-energy public transportation options or updating and constructing buildings that will have a net-zero energy consumption, by improving energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy sources.
Arreguín took office in 2016, and since then Berkeley City Council has passed and adopted multiple resolutions to expedite the progress of the Berkeley Climate Action Plan.
These include creating a fossil-fuel-free transportation system, a proposal to move away from natural gas and switch to electric in both new and existing buildings and a pilot program called the “Climate Equity Fund.” The $600,000 pilot fund aims to offer climate and resilience benefits to low-income Berkeley residents.
Arreguín spent a considerable amount of time commenting on why the climate emergency is a critical issue, but he didn’t have much to update the audience on regarding the progress of the city’s numerous climate policies. Though the mayor’s verbal commitment to the fight against climate change is valuable, a blanket statement that the city plans to expedite the timeline of reaching fossil fuel-free status is not enough. What may have been a well-intentioned soundbite of “not by 2050, but as soon as possible” demonstrates commitment to the effort, yet an intangible “soon” lacks the accountability of a deadline for future leaders to deliver on the city’s environmental goals.
The city of Berkeley has historically had a favorable climate response and showcased a commitment to improving the city’s environmental impact. While the city seems to understand the magnitude of the climate emergency, Arreguín’s address left out much detail of the specific steps and improvements that the city has taken in order to achieve the goals of the Berkeley Climate Action Plan.
We agree that “soon” is important, but with the City Council’s uncertain future in terms of leadership — three sitting councilmembers are vying for Arreguín’s soon-to-be-empty seat — a hard date would be preferable to hold the future city leaders accountable.
The city of Berkeley wants to build transit-oriented housing at both the Ashby and North Berkeley sites. While the North Berkeley site is miles ahead with developers already selected for the project, the Ashby project has lagged far behind due to ongoing negotiations with BART.
BART wants to extend a power substation to increase rates of trains through the Transbay Tube to drive up revenue, but such a project would eat into space the city wants to use to maximize housing units. Due to a long-standing legal quirk, BART owns the parking lot where the city wants to develop. However, the city of Berkeley retains the air rights above the lot — the project can’t move forward if the two parties can’t come to an agreement.
As chief negotiator for the city, Arreguín remained optimistic about talks with the transit agency, specifically that they were “making significant progress” and would be finished by December. However, we’re feeling a sense of deja vu — this isn’t the first time the mayor has said this.
In a statement last year, Arreguín said negotiations would likely be finished by December 2022, with plans to start the developer selection process early 2023. Even BART’s website still hasn’t updated, noting in its Ashby Transit Oriented Development page that the developer process was planned to start by now.
The mayor seemed positive, but with his bid for state Senate looming over him, the stakes are higher to deliver on the December 2023 benchmark. We’d like to see him succeed, but we are holding our breaths on whether or not he’ll be able to get the city there.
Negotiations have been going on for a long time now. The incessant delays leave us with not only merited doubt, but also a parking lot where much-needed housing should be.
The city wants to build 1,200 units of housing at the site with 35% to 50% earmarked to be at affordable prices. Berkeley’s housing element calls for 8,934 residential units, making this site alone capable of reducing 13% from that total. However, it’s not just housing that’s at stake here.
Berkeley wants to right its past wrongs — the Ashby station was built through eminent domain, destroying a vibrant corridor of predominantly Black businesses and residents in the South Berkeley neighborhood. The proposed project includes space for retail and a permanent home for the Berkeley Flea Market. In addition, the city has already committed to prioritizing these units for residents or descendants of people that were displaced due to the station’s construction.
This is a bold endeavor and an absolutely necessary one. However, the mayor needs to deliver on these negotiations, and whether or not he fulfills his December goal will define his soon-ending tenure.
Crime is a salient issue for mayors standing at the helm of metropolitan areas, especially leading into election years. Berkeley is no exception, especially as its mayor marks public safety as one of his highest priorities.
Berkeley Police have been at the center of many recent controversies, including an audit that showed that seven of the 10 highest paid city officials were sworn officers due to overtime pay. Arreguín announced in his address that his office is working to hire more police officers through the department’s Recruitment and Retention Incentive Program to address major understaffing at BPD. The city and the Berkeley Police Association recently came to an agreement to increase salaries and benefits for police officers to remain “competitive.”
Arreguín also referenced a July City Council vote to install 50 automated license plate readers throughout the city to combat crimes such as car thefts. Following the vote, we stressed the need for transparency of how BPD uses the collected data from the cameras. We also called for an outline showing how this technology utilizes bias-free crime detection. As the city conducts its two-year trial run, we once again affirm these objectives.
A “holistic vision of public safety” is part of the mayor’s vision, which included the establishment of the Specialized Care Unit — a team of trained crisis response workers to answer mental health calls that do not endanger the response workers. We agree with the mayor here: “We don’t ask firefighters to teach elementary school, yet we ask armed, trained police officers to be the first line of defense to the behavioral health crisis.”
Arreguin also delved into his office’s communication and work with the Police Accountability Board to improve departmental policies that expand community trust for the police. However, the mayor did not expand on which specific departmental policies they are looking to improve.
For both of these objectives, we support a nonviolent resolution to the ongoing mental health crisis in Berkeley while also holding the police department accountable. Only time will tell if these propositions become a sea wall to Berkeley’s crime wave.
The city’s 2022 crime report revealed that crimes such as sexual assault, aggravated assault and burglary all increased from 2021. Overall, crimes of these types in Berkeley increased by 15.4%.
In short, juggling the objectives of tackling crime through the police department and promising to hold that department accountable may define Arreguín’s last year in office. With these public safety initiatives, we hope the mayor delivers on his promise to lower crime rates while maintaining his proposed equity reforms and civil liberty guardrails.
Addressing Berkeley’s decline in houselessness, Arreguín said the city is both “opening the door” to its unhoused neighbors and “lighting a path” for the rest of the region to follow at his State of the City Address Thursday.
While the city has taken steps to both prevent people from losing their homes and find housing for those in need or want of it, the decline in houselessness that Arreguín cited was only a 5% decrease from 2019 to 2022, as reported by EveryOne Home.
To explain this “modest reduction,” Arreguín pointed to the city’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium, which he said prevented “hundreds of people from losing their homes” during the pandemic. Since the moratorium has been lifted, much to the dismay of renters, he added that the city continues fund rental assistance programs.
To address those already experiencing houselessness, Arreguín briefly touched on the city’s efforts to offer shelter beds and supportive services, lease motels and convert hotels into permanent supportive housing. In particular, he highlighted the Golden Bear Hotel, a 43-unit residence that began leasing to individuals in December 2022 with the financial support of Homekey, a statewide effort to sustain housing for persons experiencing or at risk of houselessness.
He also commended the work of Peter Radu, assistant to the city manager, and the city’s houseless response team for making “hundreds” of contacts during the pandemic as well as keeping Berkeley’s streets “safe and clean.”
However, it’s unclear whether these efforts have really been the cause of the reduction.
EveryOne Home counts the number of people experiencing houselessness — both sheltered and unsheltered — on one night and one morning every two years. Due to COVID-19, the 2021 count was delayed until 2022.
Considering the volatility of houselessness, it is unclear how representative a count every two years would be of the unhoused population over time. However, EveryOne Home is the only organization that consistently collects houselessness counts in the area, so we have no way of verifying its validity.
Taking the data at face value, in the span of three years, the unhoused population only decreased by 51 people. Though this is a decrease, 67 unhoused individuals died in Berkeley and Albany during that same time period, according to the Alameda County Homeless Mortality report.
Given that EveryOne Home recorded 35 unhoused people in 2019 and 23 in 2022 in Albany compared to Berkeley’s 1,108 and 1,057 respectively, most of those deaths likely occurred in Berkeley.
A closer look at the report reveals that the number of unsheltered people living in tents, cars or vans have increased, while those living in recreational vehicles have decreased by almost 100. This coincides with Berkeley’s 2019 ordinance prohibiting overnight parking of RVs or campers. However, when it was repealed in 2022, city council members claimed it was never enforced.
What was missing from Arreguín’s speech was the impact of COVID-19 on already unhoused people and any mention of encampment sweeps or drug treatment programs, which he cites as one of the main causes of houselessness on his website.
Taking all of this into account, Berkeley’s decline in unhoused people is not a statistic to be touted, nor should its efforts at reduction be the standard.
On healthcare, Arreguín expressed his desire to keep Alta Bates Medical Center open and fully functioning. However, considering his ambiguous plan of action, we remain skeptical of Arreguín’s ability to effectively take on Sutter Health.
In 2016, nonprofit healthcare organization Sutter Health announced its intention to permanently close Alta Bates Medical Center by 2030. This plan would allow Sutter Health to evade the costs of upgrading Alta Bates’ facilities in order to meet California’s earthquake safety standards. The organization’s officials plan to merge Alta Bates with Oakland’s Summit Hospital, located three miles away, following closure.
As planned, the closing of Alta Bates would pose a threat to the health and safety of Berkeley’s residents. Currently, Alta Bates is the only full service hospital in the city of Berkeley. In the event of a shutdown, residents would be forced to commute to Oakland in order to seek emergency healthcare. Heavy traffic between the two cities could put lives at risk, as Arreguín noted in 2017.
Alta Bates, which Arreguín referred to as the “birthplace of the East Bay,” has been a community staple since 1905. According to Arreguín, ensuring that the hospital remains open is one of his top priorities as mayor. On Sept. 28 he stated that he will continue to put pressure on Sutter Health to prevent it from closing down Alta Bates.
Arreguín is not the first local government official to address the potential closing of Alta Bates. Members of the Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to condemn Sutter Health’s plans in 2016, encouraging the city of Berkeley to work toward seismically retrofitting the Alta Bates campus. In 2017, state Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced a resolution that sought to prevent the widespread closures of state hospitals. Arreguín is running to fill this same seat in 2024.
Despite their efforts to reverse the expected closure of Alta Bates, local and state politicians have been unsuccessful thus far. We are unsure why Arreguín’s attempts would yield a different result.
We believe Arreguín’s intention to “keep pressure” on Sutter Health is unlikely to change the organization’s decision, considering the considerable amount of public pressure that the nonprofit has already endured. While increasing city funding for healthcare operations or negotiating with the state around earthquake safety standards could offer pathways to resolution, Arreguín did not outline such priorities in his recent address.
Ensuring that Alta Bates remains open is of critical importance. Berkeley’s residents deserve to have access to nearby healthcare facilities in case of emergency. To establish future accessibility, Arreguín must develop clearer and more concrete plans to challenge Sutter Health. Though we wholeheartedly endorse his commitment to keeping the doors open at Alta Bates, we do not have sufficient reason to believe that Arreguín will yield our desired resolution.