Before an engaged audience of residents at the Shotgun Players Theater Monday evening July 22, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin gave his 2019 State of the City address. It focused on homelessness, affordable housing, climate change, and transportation among other areas of keen local concern.
Speaking from a podium at the theater in South Berkeley, the heart of the historic African-American community, the Mayor took the opportunity to talk about the arts as central to the city’s cultural vitality. Access must be available to all, not simply those who can afford to attend arts productions, he said, and added that artists must be able to afford to live in Berkeley.
“We must incentivize affordable live-work spaces for artists,” said Arreguin, who highlighted a 45-unit building for artists scheduled to open in 2021. He said there were over 150 arts nonprofits that contribute over $165 million in economic activity to the city, making Berkeley a world-class destination for visitors interested in the arts.
To truly build Berkeley’s future, he said, we must continue to tackle the unprecedented housing crisis that has engulfed the entire West Coast. Arreguin said Measure P, that passed by a healthy margin in 2018, will provide funding for essential homeless and mental health services.
“It is estimated that on any given night, there are roughly 2,000 homeless individuals in our city, which roughly equates to 1% of our city’s population on our streets each night,” said Arreguin.
As a result, he said, one of his first major initiatives was the Pathways Project, for which he worked with city departments and stakeholders to create an unbroken path from homelessness to permanent housing. In particular, he spoke about the STAIR Center, a low – barrier shelter that provides wraparound services including employment assistance.
“I am proud to say that after 13 months in operation, 170 people have used a STAIR bed and 102 people have been housed,” he said, to the applause of the crowd. “And among those, 93% have been able to retain their housing.”
Arreguin said affordable housing is the most important issue facing Berkeley from his perspective and that of Berkeley residents. He noted that the African-American population had fallen from 20% in the 1970s to 8% today.
He said the vision and plan was to reach “functional zero,” an achievement in which residents are rapidly re-housed so no one experiences homelessness. Towards that end, he thanked voters for passing Measure O and said the City is investing $900,000, the largest investment yet in anti-displacement programs to help people stay in their homes.
Having further described several approaches to combat displacement – a “right-to-return” program, an initiative with the Berkeley Unified School District to make the city an affordable place for teachers to live, and one-time cash grants for people facing eviction – he thanked the voters.
“Thank you to the people of Berkeley for doing your part for Berkeley’s future. And thank you for your compassion,” said Arreguin.
In addition to giving a progress report on neighborhood initiatives involving resident and advocate input, such as the Adeline Corridor plan, his wide-ranging talk covered topics that included the centrality of small business sustainability for the city’s economic health.
To support small businesses, Arreguin touted the City’s small business package that includes eliminating regulatory barriers to business development. He also spoke about worker-owned cooperatives.
“At a time when corporate chains are pushing out many small, locally owned businesses, encouraging worker-owned cooperatives is a very Berkeley approach to the issue of succession planning. That is why we are partnering with Project Equity to help convert these businesses into worker cooperatives,” said Arreguin.”
He also discussed upcoming improvements to transportation infrastructure, enabled by Measure T, as essential for pedestrian, bicyclist, and vehicular safety. He said the Vision Zero Task force was confronting the crisis of hazardous roads and intersections with a goal of ending serious injuries and deaths on Berkeley roadways.
Berkeley residents can also expect more investment in multimodal transit options such as a new ferry terminal at the Marina, and a $35,000,000 upgrade to bike lanes, with the aim of increasing ridership 50% by 2025, he said.
The speech also covered steps the City is taking to secure more firefighting and vegetation management resources along the wildland-urban interface. Aside from telling the audience that everyone must take responsibility for fire safety, he said we should continue to serve as an example for the nation, setting zero waste goals and eliminating natural gas infrastructure for new buildings. The decision to ban natural gas pipes in many new buildings will go into effect on January 1, 2020.
“We are cutting our use of fossil fuels that wreak havoc on our environment and are highly volatile. This is a necessary step to implement our climate emergency declaration and our climate action plan,” Arreguin said. The City’s climate-change policies fold into the Vision 2050 Task Force’s 30-year plan for climate-smart and technologically-advanced infrastructure for the city.
Throughout the evening, and towards the end of his address, Arreguin continued to thank City employees, leaders, stakeholders and residents for working in partnership to support a bold agenda for Berkeley is describing where.
“When we work together and combine our collective efforts, we can show what it looks like to build a future that everyone can take part in,” Arreguin said, “It is the greatest honor of my life to serve as Mayor of this amazing City.”
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