First the Berkeley Housing Authority Board heard how the troubled agency has failed property owners and Section 8 tenants Tuesday night. Then it listened to a plan to save the agency from
Interim Housing Director Stephen Barton along with Interim Berkeley Housing Authority Manager Sheila Maxwell explained to BHA board members how the agency has failed to provide landlords with overdue rent increases and has been slow to process Section 8 voucher applications for the 1,500 priority households on the BHA waiting list.
HUD has made 1,840 Section 8 vouchers available to the BHA and currently there are only 1,300 households receiving the government rental
subsidies. Because BHA has failed to make full use of available vouchers, the agency is on the verge of collapse, according to Barton.
According to a recent BHA report, last year the city agency was $255,000 over budget and it expects to lose another $247,000 this year. In addition to the operating deficit, the city was fined $54,000 last year by HUD for not assigning more vouchers.
To add to the agency’s woes, BHA officials said that the Section 8 program is losing 10 housing units a month because landlords say they can get higher rents on the open market, Barton said. The number of landlords taking their units out of the program has increased from 1999 when a total of 29 units were taken out of the Section 8 program, said Councilmember Dona Spring.
“If the Housing Authority is unable to return to self sufficiency reasonably quickly it’s very likely the city would contract its duties out another agency such as the Alameda County Housing Authority,” Barton said.
Under state law, the City Council governs the BHA, which has the authority to dissolve the agency if is deemed unable to carry out its duties. Mayor Shirley Dean said the City Council may decide the BHA’s fate as early as May if there is no evidence of operation improvement.
Barton and Maxwell outlined two tasks the agency must perform in order to turn the agency around. Barton said the first thing the agency has to do is process the qualified households on the waiting list. Once the agency raises the number of Section 8 households to 1,750, which would be close to 95 percent of HUD approved vouchers, the agency will not no longer be losing money.
HUD pays the BHA approximately $700 per year for each assigned Section 8 voucher, according to Barton. Barton has set a goal of being financially solvent by June, 2003.
Recently hired BHA Manager Sheila Maxwell, the former general manager of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, said she has taken steps to organize Housing Authority staff and policy.
“We’ve been able to modify and revise procedures to cut down on the processing time of the huge amount of paperwork that this office is responsible for,” Maxwell said. “We also have regular and consistent meetings with staff to keep on top of internal problems.”
Maxwell said she has taken steps to update the agency’s infrastructure with new computers and software that will allow staff to decrease processing time.
Barton said the agency will also be working with landlords to put into effect long overdue rental increases. “Virtually all of the landlords who are in the Section 8 program need to have their rents raised to current HUD approved levels,” he said. “We are going to make a serious effort to have all the rents raised within six months.”
Some landlords have not yet received increases that were approved by HUD two years ago.
Barton said the BHA has trained and assigned several staff members to focus exclusively on shepherding landlords through the rental increase process.
Barton said by bringing landlords up to current HUD approved rates, which he said are comparable to market rates, he hopes to reverse the trend of landlords opting out of the Section Program.
Spring said if the city loses its Housing Authority, section 8 tenants and landlords could lose influence over the government housing program. “It’s a very sobering idea that we may lose the BHA,” she said. “If we did, we wouldn’t be able to give as much attention to the needs of Berkeley tenants or landlords. The accountability that we now have from the BHA would be greatly reduced.”
Dean has suggested the creation of a seven-member commission that would have more time for BHA issues than the current BHA Board, which is made up of the mayor, city councilmembers and two tenants.
“We have never been able to give the BHA the kind of time it needs,” she said. “I believe we need a board to meet two or three times a month to keep on top of things.”
Councilmember Linda Maio thanked Barton for “airing your dirty linen.” She said it appeared he had analyzed the situation very well and put together an effective plan to turn the BHA around.
Councilmember Betty Olds, who was a member of the Rent Stabilization Board for eight years, said it was about time the landlords got some consideration. “You can’t kick people in the teeth as long as Berkeley’s landlords have and expect them to continue participating in the Section 8 program,” she said. “I was very heartened to hear that the BHA is making landlord concerns a priority.”
President of the Black Property Owners Association, Frank Davis, said the plan sounds good, but what the BHA needs to do is to take action. “If we can get that out of the way, we can solve a lot of these problems,” he said. “That is the most important thing.”