The new acting manager of the Berkeley Housing Authority likes a challenge, a characteristic that will come in handy considering he has accepted the responsibility of saving the troubled housing agency from collapse.
“I like the challenge of organizing or reorganizing housing programs,” Rick Mattessich said with an Italian accent over coffee at a local café last week. He paused for a moment and his demeanor suddenly became serious. “I’m not going anywhere until things run better.”
It’s that type of commitment that has earned Mattessich a reputation as a trouble shooter for housing authorities in California, Oregon and Washington.
Mattessich, 61, was born in what is now Croatia and was raised in northern Italy. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen, and after a five-year stint in the Air Force he received his Masters of Business Administration from Seattle University in 1971.
He has lived in Berkeley since 1986 with his wife of 36 years, Carol. They have two grown sons Stefan, 36 and Anthony, 33.
“We are very lucky he’s working with us,” said Housing Director Stephen Barton. “Rick is knowledgeable about housing issues and very much a no-nonsense, get-the-job-done kind of guy.”
Mattessich, who has worked in housing for the last 22 years, most recently with the San Francisco Department of Housing and Urban Development, may be best known for organizing the Klamouth Tribal Housing Authority in 1995.
The agency, run by three northern California tribes, was the first in the nation to establish a homeownership program with loans from private lenders.
Mattessich, who has been at his new post for just over two months, may need to call on all of his skills and experience to save the BHA, which has had five directors or acting directors since 1991. The last acting director, Sheila Maxwell, quit in May six months after accepting the job.
The BHA will, at the very least, need a substantial commitment of leadership if it’s going avoid dissolving. The BHA lost $255,000 last year and it is estimated it will lose about $260,000 this year, according to a July 24 housing department report.
Barton said the agency has been plagued by poor organization that has resulted in the underleasing of Section 8 apartments.
The report says the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the BHA to lease 1,540 Section 8 units. As of June only 1,270 were leased. Because the BHA has not been able to achieve its target, its administration loses HUD subsidies that add up to about $700 annually for every unleased unit.
HUD has given the BHA an April deadline to turn the organization around and reach its target goals. If it fails, there’s a good chance the agency will be dissolved by the Berkeley Housing Authority Board and its obligations absorbed by the Alameda County Housing Authority.
In addition to poor organization, the agency has been troubled by the loss of leaseable units over the last year for a variety of reasons including landlords opting out of the program to capitalize on the lucrative rental market.
The BHA was losing an average of 10 units a month at the beginning of the year. In the last three months, the trend has been reversed and during May and June, the BHA actually gained seven units, according to Barton.
Even with the modest increase, Mattessich is faced with the challenge of increasing Section 8 leases to 1,540 by April, which will mean increasing the current gain of four leases per month to about 33 each month.
Mattessich said he believes strongly that the agency can be saved. He said a critical part of his job is making others believe as he does.
“I have to communicate that the Housing Authority will succeed,” Mattessich said. “You can’t accomplish anything significant without faith.”
He said there are three types of people he will have to work with, a small, vocal minority who want the BHA to fail, another small minority who truly believe it can succeed and the majority who want the agency to succeed but don’t believe it can.
“I want to turn their energy around to work for the BHA,” he said. “It will take the entire group.”
Among the priorities Mattessich has set for the BHA is getting the city’s 61 units of public housing into shape. He said the BHA is working with the Department of Public Works and several other agencies to accomplish the task.
“One of the first things I did was to have a comprehensive inspection of all public housing,” he said. “First we’ll take care of all the health and safety issues and then we will take care of all the deferred maintenance and modernize them.”
Barton said Mattessich is goal oriented and that it will take aggressive goal setting and a strong commitment to get the BHA anywhere near solvency. Barton said Mattessich’s task it daunting and there’s no time for setbacks.
“He has a lot to do in a very short time,” he said.