Remembering Neil Mayer, first director of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development

Neil Mayer. Courtesy: Mayer family

Neil Mayer, a man dedicated to using his skills and talent to improve the lives of others, passed away July 16 at his home in Berkeley after a long illness. He was 75. A brilliant innovator whose charismatic leadership influenced federal and local policy, as well as a loving friend and parent, Neil’s passing is a great loss in too many ways to measure.

Neil had a major influence on national and local policy in economics, housing and community development. A Milwaukee native, he completed high school in three years, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and earned a Ph.D. in Economics at UC Berkeley. While at Cal, he involved himself in Berkeley politics, helping civic leaders realize how a public economic development agency could deliver major benefits to communities.

“Neil was an architect of Berkeley’s commitment to achieve social and economic equity,” recalls former Berkeley Mayor and State Senator Loni Hancock. “As a graduate student and City Planning Commissioner, he introduced and defended many policies to support racial and economic diversity. His knowledge, determination and persistence over decades were instrumental in shaping our city.”

After earning his Ph.D., Neil joined the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, DC, assessing the budget and policy impacts of federal housing programs. He then joined the Urban Institute, a widely respected DC think tank where, as a senior researcher, he directed projects to assess the impact of housing and community development policy on people of limited means.

When Berkeley created its Office of Economic Development in 1985, Neil was named director, eventually overseeing a staff of 70. He was passionate about ensuring economic development benefited the city, especially low-income and historically-disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Neil Mayer. Courtesy: Mayer family

He revived a small business lending program for South Berkeley, promoted the hiring of unemployed Berkeley residents and initiated the successful revitalization of the downtown we enjoy today. Neil introduced mitigation fees on new development which, cumulatively, have raised millions of dollars for affordable housing and childcare. When Bayer wanted to expand in West Berkeley, he pressed for substantial community benefits in return. Neil’s community benefit innovations were precedent setting and widely reported in national planning and economic development journals.

Also active as a community member, Neil co-founded Resources for Community Development (RCD) in the early 1980s and served on its board in later years. A nonprofit, RCD creates and preserves affordable housing for people with the fewest options. RCD has built over 2,600 apartments in five Bay Area counties, providing homes for more than 5,000 residents.

A tireless leader who worked long hours, Neil always found time to play basketball at the YMCA or Live Oak Park well into his 60s. Away from the hardcourt, he was an avid fan of the Golden State Warriors. Recalled by many as gentle and kind with a sense of humor, Neil loved spending time with his family and friends, as well as reading, movies, music, and politics. He was a voracious learner, always wanting to learn more about the world around him. After retiring, he volunteered in a kindergarten class in Oakland and is remembered lovingly by the children as “Mr. Neil.”

Neil is survived by his son, Jeremy Pierce Mayer; by Jeremy’s wife, Doerte Mayer; by his siblings Bonnie (Mayer) Penix and Dean Mayer; by his former wife, Dusky Pierce; and by nieces, nephews and cousins. He will be missed greatly by all of them.

Neil Mayer. Courtesy: Mayer family

A public memorial service will be held at 2:30 pm Sunday, Aug. 21, at Northbrae Community Church, 941 The Alameda, Berkeley. Donations in Neil’s memory may be made to RCD, at 2220 Oxford St, Berkeley, CA 94704.

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