Meet Greg, the sixth organizer to interview in our series highlighting the volunteers who make up East Bay for Everyone.
What’s your name and pronouns? Greg Magofña, he/him
Tell us about your background. My dad was in the military so I grew up all over. I ended up in Alameda for high school because my dad worked at Coast Guard Island. I remember being driven around Alameda as a kid and seeing really small cute working class houses and thinking “Wow! 215k for a house! I’ll never afford that!” And now it’s like 1.7 million. The same houses and they’re just as tiny!
As a kid I wanted to be a diplomat. I studied political science at Cal and got an internship at the Canadian consulate. I though “This is great! You get to live all over the world!” but the consul pointed out that while living all over the world is the best part of the job, the worst part is when the prime minister changes, all of our directives change. At that time George Bush was president and that made me realize: I don’t want to work for him!
What did you do after college? Well, I graduated during the recession and couldn’t find a job with my degree so I went abroad and lived in Seoul, Korea for three years. I had a studio in Gangnam and my rent was only $600. I thought, “Wow! How is this possible?!” In my neighborhood the shortest building was 3 stories and they were all walkups. There was so much life — there were always people out. It was super safe.
While I was gone my parents moved back to Hawaii and after the third year my mom made good on her threats to sell my car. When I finally came back, I moved to Alameda with my brother and best friend and worked in the Mission. The commute was so awful. I had to catch the bus to Fruitvale, take BART to 16th St and then walk a mile. It shifted a lot in my mind because it was miserable to have to commute 1.5 hours each way. I decided I wanted to live near work. So when I got a job in at Berkeley city hall and I moved to downtown Berkeley.
I remember at the time (2013) I was just trying to find anything. I saw like 15 apartments but there were always 20 people in line and no one was responding to my application even though I had a steady job working for the mayor. The way I got my apartment actually was that someone was breaking his lease. He worked in tech and his salary was probably twice as big as mine and he was like, “You have trouble finding an apartment? I always get the offer.” That made me think “This is what tech is doing.” My experience as a civil servant is very different from his.
But you did find a place? I ended up getting a 345 square foot studio for $1,000, which I thought was really expensive. It’s now $1,200 only because of rent control but identical units are listing for $2,000. It’s crazy! When I was first looking my mom said, “Splurge! Get a 2 bedroom!” I regret not doing that because prices shot up really quickly and now I’m stuck basically for the rest of my life.
It’s a great location. My activism is influenced by living there. I switched to the local bank, I go to the local hardware store. TJ and Berkeley Bowl are a quick walk away. I don’t own a car so I really pay attention to walkability. How would I be different if I had grown up in a place like this? If I could just walk to a restaurant? In Alameda I could bike to a cafe across the island but that was about it.
Berkeley is changing in a good way. I find some of the most YIMBY people are the ones who grew up here like me. Because we were bored out of our mind as kids. But now with all the new housing and people: restaurants are coming back and it’s interesting and fun!
How did you start in politics?I interned for Loni Hancock when she was an assemblymember then I got a job with her husband (Tom Bates) who was Berkeley’s mayor. I had to take a lot of constituent phone calls and emails and so much of it was people complaining that their neighbors are going to build a second story or that this new building is going to cast shade on their yard. I was just so… I think “disgusted” is the word, at how selfish people were being when housing prices are shooting up and students are living three to a bedroom.
I remember thinking how ridiculous some Berkeley laws were and I asked Calvin Fong (Chief of Staff at the time), “Why do we have all these laws?” and he said, “Don’t you know? Every law only exists because someone complained.” I was just shocked because we’re supposed to be the most liberal place in the world but we’re not! People are so controlling of their neighbors!
Tell us about how you co-founded EB4E. So I knew I felt this way but I didn’t know other people did until Sonja Trauss gave a voice to us. SFBARF was focused on SF, so I asked her if there was a Berkeley group and she said there wasn’t but here are some interested Berkeley people. We met a few times about the Harold Way project but after it passed things died down. I think one thing I was realizing more and more city-specific organizing wasn’t going to work because — for example — right now we’re sitting in [the interviewer’s] backyard in Oakland and Berkeley is one block away. So after a Plan Bay Area meeting, the Berkeley BARFers went to coffee with some people from Oakland and Alameda and that’s when we joined with the idea of making a regional group. I made a website for it really fast, and because then we were actually spending money, I think we got more serious about it. And more and more people joined.
Victoria was able to get people to the meetings and I was behind the scenes talking to the politicians saying “You need to pay attention to these people. This is a movement and we’re not going to sit here quietly.” I know what electeds respond to. If you get a letter from someone you don’t normally get a letter from, then that is important.
How has the group changed? One complaint people had about our group coming up was that we were ignoring all the work previous people had done in the area. I think, now that’s we’re older there are more people that have that knowledge already. What I love about our group now is that it’s a space where you can come and learn and we’ll encourage and nurture you. In the beginning it was a lot more libertarian-esque (we had one self-identified libertarian on the board). But that’s changed so much.
I recently heard that some people just started a Berkeley housing and climate group and when I asked them why they were starting their own group instead of joining ours, their response was “You guys are more a social-equity group and we want to be a climate group”. And I was like “Wow, we are a social-equity group”. It’s great that we are but we didn’t start out that way. I remember when an inclusionary housing policy came up for Oakland originally I was one of the few people for it but now we can’t imagine not supporting it.
What changes would you like to make to EB4E? I keep pushing us to get a paid staffer because people get burned out and personnel changes will lead to lack of continuity.
You ran for office last election. How did that go?I didn’t win. I was running against an incumbent and another challenger who had just run a year before. But for me what was important was changing the conversation. The other challenger was going to focus on police and accountability but I thought we should focus on housing. My platform was all about walkability and bikeability. I was talking about what a waste it was that North Berkeley BART is a giant parking lot and across the street from it we’re zoning like the suburbs.
I think just having that conversation with a lot of people opened a lot of minds. I remember talking to a guy who was saying Berkeley was too crowded and it’s too dense and he didn’t want more people. But I was talking about gentle density — I want people to be able to duplex their house or build a granny cottage/ADU. And he responded “Well, actually, I do have an ADU.” He was against density but he had an ADU! I said “You know people my age who grew up here can’t afford here.” And he said “My daughter lives in my ADU because she can’t afford to live here!” It was crazy because he was worried about traffic but my platform was about letting people who want to walk safely and bike safely. I worked on carshare and bikeshares so people aren’t driving everywhere so it isn’t as congested. I had a lot of conversations like that and met some really great people. I got over 600 people to vote for me coming out of nowhere running against to better known candidates.
I think you can see that changing the conversation like this has really paid off. Assemblymember Buffy Wicks credited our support and Nancy Skinner is making great headway on housing because we raised the profile of that issue. I think it was one-on-one conversations we had with people that did it.