Home to San Pablo Park, one of the city’s most-used recreation areas, the newly remodeled Longfellow Middle School, the new Over-60 Health Center-senior housing project, and the city’s community-built playground at Aquatic Park, District 2 also comprises the heavily-trafficked San Pablo Avenue, a state highway, with 11 developable parcels, an often thriving prostitution trade at San Pablo and Heinz avenues and the site of the city’s third homicide of the year on Haskell Street. Median home values and income are among the lowest in the city.
The area is bordered roughly by University Avenue on the north, Emeryville and Oakland on the south, Sacramento Street on the east and the freeway on the west. Incumbent Councilmember Margaret Breland is facing four challengers. Candidate Jon Crowder declined to be interviewed for this story.
The door to Margaret Breland’s west Berkeley home is always open, and fifty years of west Berkeley history has walked through it. Sitting in her living-room with stacks of campaign literature piled on coffee tables, Breland talks about Berkeley politics, her battle with breast cancer and why she’s running for what would be her second term of office.
“I feel that I’ve done a great deal, and I want to finish the projects I’ve started,” she said.
No. 1 on her list is the fight to bridge the health disparity between African-Americans who live in the flatlands and Caucasians who live in the hills.
A retired nurse, Breland points to the $200,000 she along with her council allies got into the budget to begin to address the disparities. The money will serve as matching funds for additional health funding.
Small business development is also on Breland’s priority list.
Breland lobbied for $240,000 a few years ago for facade grants for 47 San Pablo Avenue businesses.
“I wanted to bring west Berkeley up to par, especially along San Pablo Avenue, to look like the rest of Berkeley, because, to me, it felt like west of San Pablo was like leaving the day for night.”
She said she works hard to support those business owners with community interests at heart. At the same time, she wants to reduce the number of liquor stores in her community.
And she said she has constantly pushed back attempts by Fourth Street businesses to move University Avenue into her district.
“To me, Fourth Street was never meant for west Berkeley. Fourth Street is geared for Walnut Creek or downtown Berkeley. It’s not meant for this part of the city. The only reason it’s here is because the land is cheaper, and they could get away with doing more things. And so now they’re here and trying to sprawl into our district. Several times I’ve had to say something about them not bringing Fourth Street across University,” Breland said.
“Most of the people who shop on Fourth Street are not from around here, so why come to an area where you aren’t going to serve or benefit the people who live here? It’s just not for us,” she said.
Breland’s campaign finance reports reflects no funds from Fourth Street businesses, while Betty Hicks’ statement shows she has received at least $1,500 from various Fourth Street businesses and developers.
Traffic along San Pablo Avenue is another of Breland’s concerns. As a member of the a Congestion Management Agency subcommittee on San Pablo Avenue, Breland has worked to improve bus service.
Building user-friendly bus shelters is one of her accomplishments. “We’re building nice, shelter style bus stops, where people can sit out of the rain and catch their buses,” she said.
And faster buses are in the works. Currently, there are only local buses which stop at nearly every block. Operating on a “trip” system, the new express buses will skip stops It will operates on a “trip” system. “If an express bus is stuck, say at Ashby Avenue, and needs to be at University in five minutes, the driver can push a button to trip the stop lights. It goes all the way to Hercules,” Breland said. “The program’s been approved and is about ready to go.”Another of Breland’s priorities is youth. She raised $500,000 for youth services, which includes funds that will go towards the creation of a youth facility for south and west Berkeley.
She’s also fought for funds for affordable housing as a way to fight gentrification in her district. And she sees the passage of Measure Y, owner move-in eviction controls for disabled and elderly people, as part her housing strategy. “This will allow the existing community to remain in their homes,” she said.
“There’s so much gentrification going on, it’s hard to believe,” she said.
The wave of money coming into the district bids up the housing prices as well as the available sites along San Pablo Avenue. Breland said it is important to have neighborhood-serving businesses come into those sites. She has held community meetings on the question.
“ Really, what came from those meetings was a concern that the commercial district serves the residents, and not the other way around.”
One of the big questions is the district revolves around developer Patrick Kennedy’s proposed development at 2700 San Pablo Ave. Since as council member, Breland may be asked to vote on the project, she said she’s not permitted to talk about it.
Breland’s recent campaign finance statement shows that Kennedy and his wife have each contributed $250 to Breland’s campaign and none to candidate Betty Hicks who is lobbying for a three-story development, rather than the proposed four or five-story building.
What has she learned over her first four years on the council?
“Candidates come to the election promising major changes, big plans, but it’s the daily work that matters the most. You get 12-15 complaints everyday, and taking care of that, that’s a day’s work. To get those other things done, Section 8 funding, programs for urban development, that takes political allies and know how. I have that track record,” Breland said.
Others agree. Breland is endorsed by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, Assemblymember Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, and city councilmembers Maudelle Shirek, Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington.
Breland has spent about $8,000 so far on her campaign, and said says she hopes to raise about $20,000.
District 2 candidate Betty Hicks said she is often mistaken for incumbent Margaret Breland.
“It’s not just because we’re both politically-active African-American women,” she said. “It’s because people don’t know what our councilmember looks like.”
If elected to the District 2 seat, the retired postmaster of Orinda promises to be fully accessible and highly visible at community events.
“I would be accessible and meet with block groups to assist in solving their problems.” she writes in her campaign literature.
Endorsed by Mayor Shirley Dean, the Berkeley Police and Fire departments as well as the Berkeley Democratic Club, Hicks hopes to raise a warchest of $30,000 in campaign funds. A recent campaign finance filing showed Hicks had raised $13,400 through Oct. 2, with about $1,500 coming from Fourth Street business owners and developers.
Breland voted to spend Fourth Street-area redevelopment funds on the nearby bicycle bridge, joining progressives on the council in opposing the subsidy of a parking garage. Hicks, on the other hand, said she thinks there are sufficient redevelopment funds to spend on the bike bridge and to help the merchants with a parking structure.
The candidate is quick to note that she would not be beholden to the mayor when it comes to her vote on the council.
“I would oppose Dean when it was right to do so,” she said. “I would represent District 2, and that would require me to work independently for the needs of our district, no matter what it takes.”
A case in point, Hicks said, is the retail and housing development Patrick Kennedy is proposing at 2700 San Pablo Ave. Dean has a history as a strong supporter of Kennedy’s often-controversial projects. Hicks, on the other hand, questions the four-to-five story housing and retail project proposed at the Carlton Street and San Pablo Avenue site. She said the development should be no higher than three stories.
“We need well-designed, appropriately-scaled ground floor retail and mixed-income housing along San Pablo Avenue,” she said.
A better community process for development is imperative, she said. “There should be mailings sent to every home to notify people, not just some sign tacked up on the telephone pole announcing community meetings.”
The community needs to be involved in the future of San Pablo Avenue, Hicks said. “There are developers lined up to get at those 11 (available) spots along San Pablo.”
Hicks stresses “revitalization” over “redevelopment.”
Redevelopment is a formal designation of a blighted area. Taxes on improved property within the area are collected, with certain exceptions, for the benefit to the area – they no longer go to the general fund, for example, or to the county. The promise of future tax revenue generally allows cities to borrow funds to revitalize the area in question. The designation as a Redevelopment Area usually carries with it the right of eminent domain.
“We need to protect the neighborhood and small businesses by opposing designation as Redevelopment Areas with its threat of eminent domain,” Hicks said. “The city would actually get more out of revitalization. Redevelopment would mean owners would be required to pay back (loan funds.) And with eminent domain, people never get their value.”
As for Measure Y, “I’m not for it,” Hicks said. “I know we still have housing available, but it’s been taken off the market. Rent control is the reason. We don’t need more restrictions on property owners. It’ll actually make them less likely to rent to the elderly or disabled.”
Further, she said. “We need to re-write the rent control laws to encourage more home owners to put their property back on the market.”
Though she said that there isn’t a real problem with crime in her neighborhood, Hicks does feel that it would be helpful to have better monitoring of San Pablo Park. “We need to send a strong, clear message that drug dealing in our parks and on our streets will not be tolerated,” she said. “We also need to make window bars available to the people that need them.”
Hicks addressed the changes she sees in District 2. In the last 15 years, she said her side of the street has changed from an all African-American block to a row of homes with only two residences occupied by African-American families.
It hasn’t been a problem though, she said.
“As long as you go and introduce yourself, people get to know who you are and what you represent. Then they make real judgments not based on race. You realize that these aren’t the wealthiest people in the world either. They couldn’t afford to live in the hills either.”
Still, there should be a program of low-rate city loans for first time homebuyers to help keep people in Berkeley. “They just don’t have the down payments for a home,” she said.
Currently the treasurer of the San Pablo Neighborhood Council, Hicks is looking forward to becoming a councilmember. “I will be there, people will know me, and what I stand for. I will return phone calls and answer letters and ensure that appointees to boards and commissions come from our district. That’s what District 2 needs.”
She calls herself a miracle. Others call her Mama Carol. Carol Hughes-Willoughby wants you to call her Councilmember.
“Ten years they’ve been calling me Mama Carol. Even senior citizens call me Mama Carol,” said the 44-year-old mother of two. “I have taken on the commitment and determination to be like a mother eagle over her nest, over my community.”
Currently vice-chair of the city’s Human Welfare and Community Action Commission, Hughes-Willoughby “looks out for children and the poor,” by recommending funding for various nonprofit groups to the City Council.
The candidate says she is running for the district seat because she feels that her west Berkeley community has not been properly represented. “Many of the merchants that I’ve talked to never have known what our representative looks like. I think a strong representative would come on out and be a part of the community.”
A life-long resident of District 2, she has seen her neighborhood undergo fundamental changes over the past decades.
“When I was growing up, I remember being able to play ball in the middle of the street, front doors open on every neighbor’s home, every neighbor if they saw a child they thought was being unruly or disobedient, they could correct that child. These days if you open your mouth to correct that child, you don’t know if you’re going to get shot,” she said.
She points to the success of Acton Street, whose residents, she said, formed a block committee and transformed an allegedly criminally “active” spot into a quiet residential neighborhood. Such community building is the key to successfully making the neighborhood streets safe again, she said.
“People don’t know how to approach people anymore. If that means we have to go block by block and have community meetings and have everybody meet everybody, that solves a big problem. If you don’t know (your neighbor), you’re really not going to tell Johnny to get out of that tree because he’s going to fall.”
Noting that she has developed youth programs in west Oakland, Hughes-Willoughby said part of rebuilding west Berkeley means establishing programs to teach youth “social skills and marketable job skills.”
Hughes-Willoughby also wants to bring older members of the community into elementary and middle schools to mentor youth. “Many of these kids don’t have parents at home, their parents are working, and so no one really keeps an eye out on them. These older members of our communities, they have a lot of knowledge and time, and linking them with some kids would really get them involved in the community again.”
“My main focus is definitely bringing back the unity and respect that west Berkeley once had. I feel that the community is closing its eyes to the devastation going on in our community right now.” She knows about this devastation first hand. Clean and sober for the last 14 years, Mama Carol lost her husband and a child to the streets.
“Since then my life has been about uplift,” she said. As councilmember she would establish a center in the district that would be a place for people coming out of prison to get marketable skills and find work. “No one is willing to take a risk or give them opportunity for advancement,” she said.
Hughes-Willoughby said the community needs to know what is planned for the area. She said she only heard about plans for 2700 San Pablo Ave. in casual conversation. “The 2700 plan was not brought to the community in the right manner,” she said.
Hughes-Willoughby envisions an accessible community shopping center on San Pablo Avenue, complete with a grocery store “to ensure nutritious food for a healthier community.”
On changes in the neighborhood, the candidate noted that a nearby two-bedroom house recently sold for $395,000 and is being used to house students. The long-term effects of the housing crisis are just beginning to be felt, the candidate said.
“I feel that we need to be careful because the minority populations are being forced out of our city because they can’t afford to live here. That is definitely what has happened to the African American community. They can’t even afford the houses.”
She would fight for Section 8 housing. “The government must give up more money for housing here. There needs to be a strong voice for that,” she said.
And she supports Measure Y, a proposal to protect the elderly and disabled from being evicted by landlords who want to move their own families into the rented units.
Asked if she sees herself as a role model for her community, she said, “I am a miracle. God gave me a second chance to make a difference, and that’s what I’m going to do, right here right now.”
Mama Carol can be heard most Sundays at the New Life Community Church in west Oakland, where she is a pastor.
Gina Sasso advocates for tenants, working people, seniors, the disabled and the poor. A member of the Peace and Freedom Party, which commits itself to “socialism, democracy, ecology, feminism and racial equality,” Sasso would work independent of the progressive or moderate factions on the Berkeley city council if elected.
“I’m against the war on drugs and gentrification,” she said. “Those are my main issues.”
She describes the problems of District 2 as a confluence of blight and wealth, few educational and job opportunities, and an overall feeling that no one is being encouraged
to stay as wealthier people come to Berkeley.
“In the midst of prosperity, poverty grows in west Berkeley,” she writes in her campaign literature.
At an interview at the Daily Planet offices, she expanded on this idea.
“Landlords feel that they can just push us out of our neighborhoods. The people of District 2 are tired, feeling very oppressed, depressed and have gone to alcohol. We need to take care of our people,” she said.
She said she would work to increase affordable housing, institute a 35-hour work week with a living wage, and secure more Section 8 funding for residents in her area.
“There are plenty of empty lots in Berkeley, abandoned buildings, that can be acquired by eminent domain to create low rent housing,” she said.
Her sympathy for the plight of the homeless, the jobless, the addicted and the once jailed, comes from her own experience being homeless for a few months earlier this year.
“I learned a lot from that, and want to make sure that the people I know are well taken care of. Instead of spending more money to create a police state, or a police city, in this case, we need more funding to take care of the addicts. They’re not dogs, they’re people, and if they have a problem with drugs, then we need rehabilitation programs for them. Now there’s nothing to give them jobs, no apprentice programs,” Sasso said.
Sasso said she benefited from such a training program when Jimmy Carter was president. “It wasn’t the best program in the world, it had a lot of problems, but it was something,” she said. “It gave me chance.”
On the other hand, she looks at the ’90s as a decade of war on communities of color and poor people that is still going on, and going on right here in Berkeley.
“Every five or ten minutes right now, there’s a police car driving down San Pablo Avenue. Non-violet drug offenders are constantly being put in jail, to the point where we have over two million people in prisons now. Locking them up is not the solution,” she said.
“The War on Drugs,” she writes in her campaign literature, “is a war on working class and minority communities. Drug abuse should be treated as a medical and psychological issue rather than a criminal matter.”
Sasso supports Proposition 36, which requires drug treatment programs and probation for most non-violent drug offenses. She also supports Measure Y, designed to protect the disabled and people over 60 years of age from being removed from their rental units by owners claiming that they need the space for their own family members. To combat the gentrification, Sasso proposes to curb rent hikes, and “support legislative action in support of tenants.”
She is opposed to Proposition 38, which would mandate the use of vouchers in California’s education system.
Also known as Ramblin’ Rose, a DJ on 104.1, Berkeley Liberation Radio, she coordinates schedules for over 70 DJ’s at the radio station, and can be heard Sundays 12:30-2:30 p.m. and Thursdays 6:30-8 a.m.