At the recent League of Women Voters forum with the candidates running for District 1, one observer in the audience stood out.
Linda Maio, who has held that city council seat for 26 years, was sitting in the front row, her focus firmly on the four candidates on the dais in front of her: Igor Tregub, Margo Schueler, Mary Behm-Steinberg, and Rashi Kesarwani. They are all vying for the seat.
Maio found herself silently answering the questions posed to the four candidates, she told Berkeleyside at the end of the Sept. 18 event at Berkeley City College. While Maio has no regrets about her decision to retire, old habits, like responding to community concerns, die hard, she said.
Maio has endorsed Schueler (she is also Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s second choice after Tregub) but the forum revealed the thoughtfulness in which all of the candidates are approaching the issues confronting Berkeley and the people they would represent.
District 1 includes a large portion of West Berkeley from University Avenue to the city’s north border, César Chávez Park, the Berkeley Marina, and it reaches as far east as Milvia Street. The district has seen many changes in recent years. Where it once was home to much of Berkeley’s heavy industry, like Pacific Steel Casting, the 84-year old company that is shutting down, most of those companies have left. Instead, the area has seen a surge in light industrial companies such as ZenBooth, which makes private phone booths for companies, and biotech companies, like Caribou Biosciences. Food and alcohol manufacturers abound, including Donkey & Goat winery and Broc Cellars. A stretch of Gilman Street near Ninth Street has become a food center with a new Whole Foods and a slew of restaurants such as Farm Burger and Philz Coffee. The Fourth Street shopping district draws shoppers from around the Bay Area.
District 1 is made up of mostly small one and two story single-family homes, a reflection of the neighborhood’s strong working-class roots when the area was a separate town known as Ocean View. In recent years, those without permanent homes have flocked to the area, too, as various encampments have been set up and come down. For years, there was a large encampment underneath the Gilman underpass. Caltrans shut it down, and then people moved to a long stretch along Second Street. That, too, is gone, but now there are smaller groups of people living near the University Avenue underpass. For months, there was a group of RVs parked along Marina Boulevard. Just a few months ago, Berkeley opened the Pathways Center, a new navigation shelter for 49 people that wraps clients in services as a way to move them into permanent housing.
Each candidate got a minute to make an opening statement about themselves and their vision for District 1. Here are snapshots of the four, presented in the order that Adena Ishii, the president of the non-partisan League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, which sponsored the event, called on them.
Igor Tregub, 33, is a first-generation immigrant from Ukraine. He moved with his family to four different countries and three different cities until he attended UC Berkeley and decided it was home. Tregub was active in Cal government and in 2006, City Councilwoman Dona Spring appointed him to the Berkeley Commission on Labor. Two years later he was elected to the Rent Stabilization Board, where he still serves. He is currently the chair of the Zoning Adjustments Board and sits on the Housing Commission. All of those positions make him “a proven leader,” he said. Tregub works as a safety engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Arreguín is supporting Tregub, as is Assemblyman Tony Thurman, and former School Superintendent Delaine Eastin. Tregub said 13 former and current city councilmembers are supporting him, including current members Kriss Worthington, Sophie Hahn, Ben Bartlett, and Kate Harrison. Finding solutions to make home ownership affordable and rents reasonable, as well as protecting the environment, are among some of Tregub’s major concerns.
Margo Schueler, 63, has lived in Berkeley for 24 years. She raised two daughters who went to public schools, where they learned both Spanish and Cantonese. Schueler has deep experience with infrastructure issues, she said. She began her career as a welder in the San Francisco shipyards, worked as an engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge, and recently retired as a maintenance superintendent for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, where she worked on improving the efficacy of pipes. Schueler has served on Berkeley’s Public Works Commission for more than a decade. She also worked in the schools’ gardening program and with a local food network. Schueler sees homelessness, regional housing issues, and rebuilding infrastructure as some of her priorities. In addition to Maio, former Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and State Senator Loni Hancock and School Board Member Beatriz Levya Cutler have endorsed her, among others.
Mary Behm-Steinberg, 51, has lived in Berkeley for about half her life — in a multitude of different kinds of places. She has been a renter in an illegal sublet, has lived in a rent-controlled apartment, and current lives in a condo. Behm-Steinberg said she has multiple disabilities and is low-income, as are many of her friends, which has always made her aware of issues facing people without a lot of resources. It has also made her fear homelessness, she said. Behm-Steinberg is concerned about the decline in Berkeley’s diversity and what she sees as an increasing lack of compassion in the city. She wants to make Berkeley function more efficiently, to hire at-risk youth and more grant writers to go after federal and foundation funds.
Rashi Kesarwani, 35, is also a first generation immigrant. Her parents came from India to southern California in 1978 without any money and without speaking English yet they were able to eventually buy a modest home. Kesarwani came to Berkeley in 2010 to get a master’s degree from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and has remained here since. She is a new mother — her son Austin was born in April — and works as a finance manager for San Francisco’s Human Services Agency, where she track revenues and expenditures for the agency’s $900 million budget. She has also served on Berkeley’s housing and community health commissions. Those have given her experience working in complex policy issues, she said. Kesarwani is concerned about the affordability of Berkeley and would like to see affordable housing built on the North Berkeley BART station, as well as an increase in the construction of backyard cottages. She also wants to make sure Berkeley remains a “beacon” for diversity, opportunity and social justice. State Senator Nancy Skinner, City Councilwomen Lori Droste and Susan Wengraf, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and the Berkeley Police Association, former City Councilmen Laurie Capitelli and Darryl Moore, among others, have endorsed her.
There were a number of questions from the audience posed during the forum and each candidate got a minute to respond.
On the question of rent control and balancing the needs of small property owners and tenants with high incomes, all of the candidates discussed how the housing situation in Berkeley needed a delicate hand. Behm-Steinberg said she would create a fund to protect vulnerable tenants and help them make ends meet during periods of difficulty. The fund could also help small landlords pay their water bills or other property-related bills. Kesarwani reaffirmed the essentialness of rent control in Berkeley. She supports adding rent control to properties constructed after 1980 after a certain amount of time has lapsed. (That could only happen if Costa-Hawkins is repealed. Prop 10 on the November ballot would do that.) Berkeley needs “a balanced approach that protects tenants and small-time landlords,” said Kesarwani.
Tregub pointed out that he has served two terms on the Rent Board. He believes in protecting both tenants and small property owners as they are responsible for the “creativity, the diversity and the vibrancy” of Berkeley. As a rent board commissioner, Tregub made the “tough decision,” in a 5 to 4 vote to make it easier to build ADUs, or accessory dwelling units, he said. That is the approach he would take as a City Council member, he said. Schueler said there is a range in nuance in ownership issues in Berkeley, from corporate development to small homeowners. Many people have lived in Berkeley for a long time and as their children move out, that frees up space. Many would rent rooms if Berkeley had more flexibility in rent control and vacancy control, she said adding in that “tenant protections are crucial.”
The next question focused on Berkeley’s homeless population and what can be done to help. Kesarwani said that Berkeley needs to do a better job of measuring the outcomes of policies already in place. For example, the city should examine how many people placed in the Pathways program have gotten permanent housing and how many have been able to successfully remain in their new apartments. “If we are not achieving the results we think we should given the investment I want us to explore other options,” she said. Kesarwani is in favor of expanding the number of temporary shelter beds. She also wants Berkeley to do a better job helping people who are right on the edge, who are weighing paying their rent against paying other bills.
Tregub pointed out that Berkeley has around 1,000 unhoused individuals and about a quarter of them live in District 1. He has been dealing with these issues for the last 15 years. He recently served on Homelessness Task Force, which came up with a number of ideas that the city is now implementing. Tregub said he helped craft measures O and P, which will be on the November ballot. Measure O is a $135 million affordable housing bond. Measure P will increase the transfer tax from 1.5% to 2.5% for homes that sell above $1.5 million. Tregub said Measure P will provide between $20 and $60 million for mental health and supportive services.
Schueler said she lives on Seventh Street where there is a homeless encampment practically in her front yard. She said Berkeley must work with other cities to find regional solutions. Essentially, the surge in homelessness is a reflection of the huge wealth disparity that has developed in recent decades. Measure P will address that which is why “I support it tremendously,” she said.
Behm-Steinberg said the homeless population is diverse so a diverse set of solutions is needed. That includes more mental health solutions and more drug rehab programs. She wants to see the encampments regulated and provided with sanitary facilities. Then Berkeley needs to make them gradually more permanent by building tiny houses.
The candidates were then asked what were the top three issues they would champion if they were elected to the council. Tregub said he has successfully fought alongside many people on environmental justice concerns, including keeping the Bay Area Air Quality Management District accountable in improving West Berkeley’s air quality and working as chair of the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club to stop the transport of fracked oil along West Berkeley railroads. He has long been concerned about affordable housing issues and was an advocate of Measure U1, which increased the gross receipts tax of property owners who have more than five units.
Schueler said that in addition to focusing on housing and homelessness, she would concentrate on the condition of Berkeley’s infrastructure and the impacts of climate change. These are two issues she has worked on for more than 30 years, she said. “We are facing sea level rise. We are facing drought-induced wildfire on our upper ranges, we are facing much more severe storms and localized flooding as a result of that. (She mentioned that Second Street has flooded twice in the last four years.) These serious environmental issues can be addressed through Berkeley’s infrastructure.” She mentioned the permeable pavement on Allston Way that allows more rainwater to enter the ground as the type of project she would champion.
Behm-Steinberg said she wants “to make the way the city functions better and more efficient.” She would like to use citizen experts, like Schueler, to help the city since it “doesn’t seem the city talks to itself very often about the ways different programs can work together.” She would like to hire at-risk youth to work on donated land to grow food for the homeless. She also wants to hire a grant writer because she has found millions of dollars in grants the city is not going after.
In addition to housing and homelessness, Kesarwani said community safety, keeping Alta Bates Hospital open, and ensuring that Berkeley is a climate-resilient community in terms of its infrastructure would be her priorities. She wants to work collaboratively with police officers, business owners and the neighborhood to build a stronger sense of community and make people feel safer.
To see a video of the forum, including the candidates’ answers to questions about climate change, and whether Berkeley should place a measure to amend the responsibilities of the Police Review Commission on the ballot, look below.