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Report shows Housing Authority’s progress slow

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Friday April 27, 2001

According to a recent progress report, The Berkeley Housing Authority’s efforts to become financially stable have fallen short of its goals raising questions about the agency’s future. 

Unlike most government agencies, the BHA is structured like a business, said Interim Housing Director Stephen Barton.  

The agency is financially rewarded based on its production. So, if it fails to provide low-income tenants with Section 8 vouchers and those tenants are unable to find housing, the BHA does not receive federal funds. 

Last year the BHA lost $255,000, which was made up by the city’s general fund. Barton said this year BHA will likely lose between $250,000 and $300,000.  

The BHA Board, made up of the City Councilmembers and two tenant representatives, has said the BHA may be dissolved if it can’t turn itself around.  

Another possibility is that BHA management could be turned over to the Alameda County Housing Authority.  

Barton said there is a solid business plan in effect and the city is doing what it can to solve the agency’s problems.  

He said the BHA has had success in accelerating the processing time for vouchers, but there is still a lot more to do before the problems are solved. 

“We could try to deal with that deficit by cutting staff, but then we wouldn’t be able to process and provide Section 8 vouchers, which is really the only way to solve the problem and still serve low-income tenants,” he said.  

According to the April 24 BHA progress report, the agency received another blow when Interim Manager Sheila Maxwell submitted her resignation just six months after she accepted the position. Maxwell was the fourth manager since 1991.  

She did not return calls to the Daily Planet Thursday to respond to questions about the reasons for her resignation. 

Barton said he will oversee the BHA with the assistance of housing staffer Ted Katiama, until a replacement can be found. 

The Housing and Urban Development Department, the federal agency that oversees the BHA, has approved 1,840 vouchers for Berkeley. Currently only 1,266 are in use, which represents 20 fewer than in January. 

Barton said the housing authority has taken steps to speed up the processing of Section 8 applicants, but the agency’s problems have been compounded by a shortage of housing and high market rents. According to the report, 105 of the 1,592 applicants have been approved for vouchers since January. But of those, only 31 have actually found housing.  

Barton said the BHA will likely re-prioritize the Section 8 waiting list to give first priority to applicants who are already have housing and are spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent. The BHA has also begun outreach programs to landlords that may be able to benefit by participating in the Section 8 program. At its meeting on Tuesday, the BHA Board approved an increase in Section 8 rental rates bringing the allowable rental subsidy in range of market rates.  

The report also said the BHA has been hindered in approving more vouchers because applicants have not been showing up for scheduled interviews. During March there were 188 initial applicant interviews scheduled and 124 were no-shows. 

Councilmember Dona Spring said much of the problem was created when the state approved the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act in January, 1999. The act allowed landlords to raise a unit’s rent each time it became vacant. Prior to Costa Hawkins, landlords who participated in the Section 8 program were exempt from rent control. 

“Ever since then we’ve had a steady stream of landlords leaving the Section 8 program,” she said. “It’s created a tremendous demand on housing in a market where there is no housing.” 

Mayor Shirley Dean said the tough rent control as it existed in Berkeley prior to Costa Hawkins, was responsible for some of the housing problems the BHA is currently facing. She said the controls caused too much pent up demand for rental increases and as soon as landlords had an opportunity to cash in, they took it. “It caused all kinds of problems and the people who got hurt were the very people it was trying to protect,” she said. 

Councilmember Mim Hawley said the BHA has to focus on outreach to landlords who can benefit from participating in the program. She said there are many landlords who can get higher and more regular rents than they are receiving now. 

She added that if the BHA is turned over to the Alameda County Housing Authority there may be some advantages for Berkeley Section 8 tenants. “Berkeley is a university town and that will always make it tough to find available housing,” she said. “If the county takes over there will be a wider range of housing for tenants to chose from.” 

Councilmember Linda Maio said that if the county takes over the BHA there would have to be an office located in town.