After growing up as a “military brat” bouncing between Coast Guard bases wherever his father was stationed, Greg Magofña went to UC Berkeley in 2002, then planted his roots in the city.
Now 38, he decided in April to run for the Berkeley City Council this fall to represent his fellow residents in District 4, which includes the downtown corridor just west of UC Berkeley. He wanted to be a voice for the large percentage of renters in the district who can barely afford to stay in Berkeley.
He envisioned fighting to provide housing for teachers and artists, developing new units for all income levels, supporting social housing options and creating programs for long-term renters to transition into ownership.
It was his second bid for a council seat after falling short in 2018. But this time, he had to pull out because he’s been priced out of the city and will need to move elsewhere, leaving behind the tenants he had hoped to fight for.
“This is finally the place that I decided, ‘I love it here,’” said Magofña, who recently transformed his 10-unit apartment’s garden into a succulent haven. “I can be gay, open and I can make sure that everyone composts and no one will look at me funny. I’ve literally put roots down, and it’s sad to have to leave. I wonder — is the Bay Area the place for me if I’m going to continue struggling?”
For eight years, he made do with a 350-square-foot, rent-controlled unit until isolation and creeping claustrophobia during the pandemic pushed him to move into a larger space and split its $2,800 rent with a roommate. But the region’s $1.9 million homes ultimately convinced his roommate to move out of the Bay Area by the end of this year, and Magofña suddenly realized that staying in Berkeley is no longer economically feasible.
He doesn’t know where he’ll go next. West Oakland might be his only local option, but he worries about taking a unit away from someone else.
Magofña, who works as director of outreach and development for California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, a “watchdog” nonprofit that holds exclusionary cities accountable for not building enough housing, says he fears that unless candidates live in rent-controlled units, only wealthy homeowners and residents will be able to run for office.
In an interview, Magofña talked about how his financial plight should be a wake-up call for the dire need to provide more affordable housing.
Q: What is it that led you to throw yourself fully into Berkeley’s community and get involved in so many organizations?
A: For me personally, there’s a sense of service and duty thinking about my dad who was a master chief in the Coast Guard. I remember I wanted to join the military when I was younger, but being gay, I just couldn’t see myself serving the public that way. Even though my dad was in the military, there were five of us — my dad, my mom, me and my brother and sister — and we pretty much grew up low income, and I’ve worked ever since I was able to get a work permit at 15 ½ years old.
I remember coming to UC Berkeley and meeting people whose parents paid for their rent, and I had no idea people like that existed. All while I’ve been working 25 hours a week, super tired and am suffering. Maybe coming to Berkeley radicalized me. I just couldn’t sit around and see all this injustice. I was very motivated.
Q: How did that motivation culminate into affordable housing advocacy?
A: What radicalized me around housing is when I worked for (former Mayor Tom Bates) and watching how neighbors would NIMBY everything they see. I remember one project really got to me: a person wanted to add a second story to their house, but the two neighbors besides them were against it. Those two neighbors both had two-story houses. I started realizing that Berkeley, for as liberal as it is, it’s actually not. It’s a very, very controlling place, or they like to tell everyone what they can and can’t do.
Q: One sentence in your election withdrawal announcement particularly caught my attention: “I wondered if my advocacy all these years was accomplishing anything at all or if I even have a future here.” Was that angst that all that work didn’t end up helping your own financial situation?
A: I think that’s fair to say. I mean, I am one of the original, founding members of the YIMBY movement, and if you look at what we started back with East Bay for Everyone in 2015, we were seen as crazy radical kids who are super entitled. We were just very aware of displacement and what was going on. There’s a lot of hope that we’ve changed public perception — people realize how important it is. Four years ago, the median home price in Berkeley was nearing $1 million. That was insane, but I felt like there was still hope — we could still build, we could still get something done. But then someone in Berkeley tweeted about how the median selling price in April was $1.9 million, and it just broke me.
Q: After making your campaign announcement, how has the stress of housing insecurity impacted you? How are you feeling?
A: It’s been very emotional. I’m savvy and I tweeted (my campaign announcement) on purpose, knowing it would get attention. I wanted not to bring attention to me, but I wanted people to pay attention to what’s happening here in Berkeley, really think about who’s making the decisions and, when the election comes in November, to make sure you think about who are the pro-housing candidates.
Many people have reached out, but I haven’t responded to the personal messages because I read them and immediately break into tears. To see all the excitement and the hope and the people ready to walk and support you, I do feel like I have disappointed them a little bit. And it’s really hard because you can try and try and try, and I’ve given so much energy and life to all these initiatives and advocacy, but I’ve decided I’m not going to struggle for the next four years. To tell people, “I’m sorry, I just really need to take care of myself,” I don’t think they are mad at me, but it feels very heavy.
Q: What do you want folks to take to heart about how hard it can be to afford living in Berkeley?
A: We all hear about homes selling for $1 million, but when you realize that translates into a $7,000 monthly mortgage payment, I think it’s more real. You can compare that to your life or even think about students at UC Berkeley who are young and paying tuition that is crazy expensive.
I think that as much empathy or lip service we pay to progressive values and empathy, there are so many people who are being missed — maybe because they’re not visible, maybe because they’re ashamed that they’re suffering and they think it’s their fault. But I think the reason that this resonates so much is because so many people are experiencing it.
Age: 38Job Title: Director of Development and Outreach, California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education FundResidence: BerkeleyChildhood homes: Virginia, Massachusetts, Guam, Hawaii, CaliforniaEducation: Bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley, master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public PolicyPrior roles: Senior aide to former Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates; Digital marketing and communications manager for the nonprofit Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency; AmeriCorps
FIVE FACTS ABOUT GREG MAGOFÑA
- Worked abroad in South Korea for three years after graduating from UC Berkeley
- Co-founded East Bay for Everyone in 2015
- Listens to Belle and Sebastian
- Enjoys gardening in his spare time
- Not a dad, but is really into dad jokes