Igor Tregub, 33

 Igor Tregub, 33, moved to Berkeley for his freshman year of college and has made it his home ever since. An engineer by trade, Igor has continually served his community as a member of the Berkeley Rent Board, the Sierra Club and a Department of Energy employee. Learn about his early life in Kiev, how he found a home in Berkeley, and how he plans to bring his unique perspective to Berkeley City Council. 

If you could get a beer with any politician, who would it be?

I’d love to get a beer with Bernie. Not just because of the awesome alliteration. But for $27 beer or maybe $27 in beers, I could get face time with someone who has single-handedly changed the course of history in many ways. Even though he was ultimately unsuccessful in winning the presidency, he has consistently been shown as one of the most popular politicians alive today. I’ve been re-reading his biography and was really touched by the story of how he got his start - running for office as a young person when so many discounted his ability to win. He was able to get elected and move an entire city council in a progressive direction. He did the same thing for the Vermont State Legislature, in Congress, and he completely re-framed the way we talk about issues.

Another person is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m sure everyone wants to get a drink with her. She went from being a bartender to being the youngest member of Congress in a year. In fact, I wouldn’t want to get a beer with her, I’d want to pay multiples of $27 for whatever drink she wants to (and still has time to) make.

How do you stay informed with what’s going on in Berkeley?

As an elected official, I want to be as accessible as I can. A really powerful role model once told me if you want to be a public servant, if you want to actually work in alignment with a community, you need to be proximate to that community.

I go out. I meet with neighbors. I tour construction sites where there are allegations of wage theft. I go into apartment buildings where I hear that someone is being displaced or not being provided with heat or other amenities. That’s how I stay engaged and proximate to the people that I serve.

Of course, there are other tools. We have Berkeleyside and the Berkeley Daily Planet. I also stay in touch with neighbors through Nextdoor. And every couple of days I try to check in and see what neighbors are concerned about or passionate about. Often there are some technical questions to housing so I’m happy to go in on Nextdoor and answer those question.

One such Nextdoor question was how I was able to connect with a former council member who was elected 35 years ago when elections were not by council district but were at large. This conversation on Nextdoor ended up earning me a lifelong supporter and she now hosts our kitchen cabinet meeting at her house.

You’re not born in Berkeley, but in fact, have lived in a handful of places. Where did you grow up and where do you claim as your hometown?

I’ve had a number of hometowns, nearly ten. I was born in Kiev in Ukraine, then 5 years later my family moved me out of there. This was during the end stages of the Soviet Union when they were starting to let Jews out of the country in higher numbers. But they wanted to extract their pound of flesh, so for the privilege for leaving the Soviet Union, if you were Jewish, you had to practically “give” back to the government everything you owned. My family had just the clothes on their backs and a few suitcases when we came to Israel. I spent 3 and a half years in Israel, I spent a year in Germany, then I came to the states. The first place I came to was Knoxville, Tennessee. Then I lived in a couple places in California, including San Diego, then Oak Park, just north of LA. It’s the southernmost part of Ventura County. That’s the place I would claim as my hometown, other than Berkeley.

I went to middle and high school there during the dot-com bust in the early 2000s. My dad ended up losing his job and finding a job in Santa Clara, and for a while, he was commuting back and forth, so we would only see him a few times a month. I don't know how he did that, but he had to do whatever was necessary to keep our family together. At one point my mom found a job there too, and they wanted to move me out to Northern California for my final year of high school. I was just sick of being uprooted and trying to start over again, so I put my foot down. I had finally established a group of friends, I was involved in activities in my high school, I was on track and cross country. I ended up saying no and wanting to stay put in the place I considered my home. For half a year I lived with my grandparents while I was finishing high school.

Then I came to Berkeley and that became my home, and that’s where my story begins.

Your background is very geographically diverse and you’ve been able to live in so many distinctive environments. How do you think your background has informed the work you do in government?

The effect of gentrification and displacement have consumed so many families in the Berkeley area. Particularly in places like West Berkeley, which I'm hoping to serve, where I’ve been actively working on anti-displacement issues. The reason for displacement can be different in different situations, in many times they’re economic in nature. Maybe that’s a different story than my own personal story. But the first time I moved it was so I’d have a better life. But it’s a visceral experience when you’re starting to get it together and find a sense of belongingness, then have to be uprooted again. That is an experience I went through time and time again growing up. They say that being displaced is a traumatic experience. But when you’re a kid in your formative years that can inform your perspective for the rest of your life.

I think, there was a little bit of trauma there. It pales in comparison of the trauma that African American communities have gone through in places, such as Berkeley where the population of African Americans has gone through 30% in the 70s to less than 8% now.

But deep down inside, I feel like I speak the same language when I serve people that are struggling to stay in place in this community that we love.

Now you’re actually an engineer by trade. Why did you decide to pursue a career in government as well as engineering? How do you think being an engineer informs what you do and why be a public servant?

I actually don't necessarily feel they are mutually exclusive. 2008 is when I graduated from college and started my day job which I still currently hold as an engineer with the Department of Energy. I’m a career public servant there. 2008 was also the year I ran for local office and got elected. Within the span of several months, I took two oaths. They were exactly the same, but one was to serve the American people and the other one was to serve my local community.

I think my background an engineer has helped orient me in trying to reach solutions. So my background as an engineer often helped me break down a seemingly intractable problem into bite-sized pieces. Then assigning resources to every one of those pieces. Figuring out a timeline for how we can get to short, medium and long-term targets for progress. Putting metrics on the problem to continue to assess how well a system is working.

Speaking of the city, then you are running for district one of Berkeley City Council. In your own words, what does a city council do?

The city council is the final arbiter of the kind of policies the city wishes to see. They have the sole power to set local policies on a variety of issues ranging from housing, solutions to the homelessness crisis, what kind of community policing we’re going to have, to what kind of assistance with the social net we’re going to have. Even what kind of wages and benefits we’re going to provide to our hardworking city staff. Issues that are everyday kitchen table issues for so many of our Berkeley community.

So the city manager ultimately is in charge of about 1400 city employees and is provided the operational power to make sure that they are serving to implement the policies that are set out by the majority of the City Council. The city staff is entrusted with fulfilling and implementing the city council, which ultimately stems from the will of the voters who elected them.

Currently, you’re on the Berkeley Rent Board. Why are you leaving your position for city council spot?

Beyond the rent board, I chair the Housing Advisory Commision and the Zoning Advisory Board. I already spend close to 40 hours a week between those three and other civic services that I do within the city of Berkeley, even for the Berkeley Unified School District. I’m already doing the work in many ways. I think that I would be in a position to do the work even more effectively if I was on the city council which is where the final decisions are made. In many cases, whether it is on the zoning board or rent board, we make approval decisions for housing, but often we are stuck dealing with antiquated city code that is unclear and it riles up the neighbors. It’s even unclear to the zoning board and it's hard for us to really have a degree of confidence that what doing truly aligns with what was the intent of the city. Well, guess what, it’s the council that is in charge of modifying the code to make things more clear. And to be cognizant of where the community stands on these issues.

I’ll give you another example, as chair of the Housing Advisory Commission, I've made a series of recommendations over the five years that I've been there which totaled in several million dollars of funding for essential community services, through the Housing Trust Fund, the Community Development Block, and the Emergency Solutions grant. All of those were adopted unanimously by the council.

But if there ever were a disagreement within the council, because unfortunately, we have limitless needs around social services, housing services, infrastructure and paying our staff quite frankly, as well, and we have limitless needs but limited resources. I would be in a more effective role where I can make decisions that are conscientious that move our city forward, that ensure that this is a place that we can all call home. Then I could be on these commissions by design are fairly limited in their scope.

Speaking of these unlimited needs of Berkeley. What are the issues that you feel aren’t being addressed in your community?

We face the worst housing affordability and homeless crisis we’ve ever seen. And while the reasons for it are long-term in nature and regional in nature, the reality is that 1000 of our brothers and sisters go to bed every night to sleep every night under a storefront awning, under the freeway overpass, in their cars or RVs, or in classrooms. I’ve toured these sites, I’ve talked to the people. I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like to not have a roof over your head.

25% of the unhoused are estimated to reside in the district that I'm running to represent. So that is an immense issue. Of course, there are other issues from the quality of life, including air quality. We are a district that is bounded by a very busy stretch of the I-80.  There have been residences that have been living in the shadows of heavy industry for a long time.

While many of those industries have fought to be good neighbors, to the extent that they can, and have provided much-needed union jobs, there is fundamentally a conflict of incompatible uses - which manifests itself most fully through our district’s air quality challenges. Some of it also stems from the congestion around the I-80. Communities in particular, in West Oakland which is worse off than we are because it is bounded by the port. I am chair of the Sierra Bay Club chapter, I’ve worked on harm reduction initiatives requiring the polluters to pay mitigation fees. We’re looking at new alternatives to moving people through the bay that did not involve an internal combustion engine on a privately owned vehicle so we can get some cars off the road but find alternatives to them.

I’ve also been working on infrastructure, which is another big issue. So is transportation equity and keep the various incredible small businesses and nonprofits that make the district so special in district one, because a lot of them are struggling with the changing of the retail market as well as high commercial rents that they can't afford.

For several years you've been fighting for inclusionary housing policies. For someone who has no idea what that means, what exactly are you advocating for?

Inclusionary housing is a requirement that market-rate housing developers have to put in a certain percentage of units in the building as affordable. There’s debate in our community over the true meaning of affordability, I'm gonna give you the Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of affordable. This is what every city is required to go by when they do inclusionary housing policies. Right now we have a 20% inclusionary requirement. That means in a 100 market rate project, 20 have to be affordable - half of them have to be affordable to households with 80% of the area median income. And the other half to be affordable to those earning 50% of the area median income in the Oakland metro area. And at any affordability designation, that means someone making that income cannot pay more than 30% of income on rent.

Technically we are defined by HUD as the Oakland metropolitan area. But the median income in Berkeley less than the median income in the Oakland metropolitan area. One of the things I’m fighting for, which I don’t think I’ll get under Trump but maybe under another president, is to localize these definitions so they are done to solve each communities exact needs in the most localized area.

Like you said, we’re in a specific political era that may not support these reforms. What do you say to people who think we don’t need inclusion housing, the market is the market? Why should we make things cheaper for people?

Well, this is where I think about an LBJ idea that I like, which is the belief that a government's policies are really a reflection of the values that it uses in protecting its population, particularly lower income folks and senior citizens. If the city felt that keeping communities here was not important then they could elect a city council which could provide a trickle-down solution.

We’d have to build a completely new city for median prices to start going down from the market rate. Until then, I think the city council that has been elected have been entrusted with the solemn duty to do what they can, to keep rents as stabilized as possible, and to keep communities in place.

I absolutely agree that we cannot stop building market-rate housing either. As chair of the Zoning Board over the last five years, I’ve personally approved about 3000 units of housing. Every time we approve market-rate housing, or rezone a property in a way that allows basically overnight heightened windfall profit for the developer, our community does have the power to impose land value extractions. This is basically just a small percentage of the windfall profits the developer gets, that they are required back to the community for the impact that has been caused by providing the market rate development.

Who have been your mentors throughout your political career?

Well, in terms of an overall mentor, it's been my family. I come from a long line of very hard working disciplined individuals. I hate to say it, but it’s true - I don't think I’m half as disciplined as they have been. My great-grandmother was the first woman in the Soviet Union to oversee a Chemistry Department at a University at a time that was not a role typically allow women to let alone, certainly not one that Jews were allowed to hold.

My grandfather, who just turned 93,  fought in World War II, and then ended up rising to the rank of colonel. But he didn’t want to do any more combat after he saw fought tour of duty in WWII. What he wanted to do was educate young people. He ended up educating cadets in physics and engineering. Again, not typically a role that Jews were allowed to ascend to in the former Soviet Union.

He taught me a lot about not taking no for an answer and living a life of principles and values. When I'm approaching a tough vote on the rent or zoning board, I think about what would my grandfather do if faced with the same situation. I end up voting with my values in a way that hopefully will my family proud.

More locally Mayor Arreguín and outgoing Councilmember Kriss Worthington have two of my role models. I want to be clear, that doesn’t mean that even though I have the support of both of them and I have always voted in lockstep with them, because I am my own person, and we can agree to disagree.

But when I was a student, I met Jesse Arreguin, who I think no one including him had any idea that one day he would be Berkeley mayor. I don't think he wanted to be mayor at the time but I was doing some work in student government that put me in touch with him and we have worked on many issues together ever since.

He was a huge help to me, and he connected me with Kriss. Jesse started working as Kriss was consistently the one member of the Council that would listen to the voice of students. He was often the only one that came out to the events we set up, and they were instrumental in helping me get my start.

Another person who gave me my start by appointing me to the commision of labor, which I ended up serving on for 5 years, now of them, was the late great Donna Spring, She was a trendsetter in her own right.

Sadly, she passed away shortly before she could see me be elected to the Berkeley Rent Board and see Jesse be elected to her seat - and then as our mayor. In her later years, she was fighting illness and visible disabilities, but that never deterred her from being a voice for the voiceless. She was the very first Green Party member in 1992 to have gotten elected to a position on a city council anywhere in the nation.

Max Anderson, another former council member of the city council, who was known as the conscience of the city council. I was so deeply moved when had been fighting health challenges as well, and I didn’t expect him to show up to my kick-off for Council and he did. I rearranged the program so he could speak first. He did such a great job as he always does, getting people riled up about what’s truly important for your community, always being a voice for your community, and ensuring that the gap between the haves and the have-nots nationally and locally don’t continue to widen. He reminds people to always vote for parity and equity for your community.

How do you think we should get more people involved? What advice would you give to other young people running for office?

Just do it. As Nancy Pelosi just quoted from elsewhere, “just win baby.”

Never let others define your capabilities. Only you know what they are. You are much more thoughtful, intelligent, conscientious and can more often than not make the right call than sometimes people will make you out to be. Sometimes, even more than you know you can be. Don’t let other people define who you are. Only you have that power. You have that voice, that’s a really important voice that must be heard, must be represented.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.

Lacy Wright