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Permanent director for housing department

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Wednesday August 01, 2001

The City Council promoted Stephen Barton from “acting” to permanent director of the Housing Department July 24, making him the official head of the agency as it struggles to maintain an affordable housing stock in the midst of what he calls “major social change.” 

Barton, 51, has worked for the city since 1989 and has been acting head of the department for two-and-one-half years.  

He holds a doctorate in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley and has won several awards for articles on housing issues. He has lived in Albany for 13 years with his wife of 23 years, Barbara. They have one son, Andre, 22.  

The closed-session vote to approve Barton was 7-1-1 with Councilmember Betty Olds voting in opposition and Mayor Shirley Dean abstaining. 

Both Dean and Olds said they thought it was too early to name Barton director because of the ongoing problems with the Berkeley Housing Authority, which is now struggling to reverse years of disorganization that has resulted in the possible dissolution of the agency due to the underleasing of federally subsidized Section 8 housing. 

“I abstained because, instead of voting ‘no,’ I was hoping we could outline some objectives for him to reach over the next six months before appointing him,” Dean said. “I don’t expect miracles but I think we should have given him some more time.” 

Councilmember Dona Spring said she strongly supports Barton’s appointment as director. She said Barton inherited a lot of problems with the Housing Authority, a division of the Housing Department, and that his official appointment will shore up his authority among city staff and the public. 

“I know in the past he has been hampered because he was only the acting director,” she said. “His appointment will answer a lot of questions about what his authority is and how long he will be around to work on the problems that face the department right now.” 

The Housing Department, budgeted at $14 million for fiscal year 2001-2002, is charged with the difficult task of producing, preserving and supporting affordable housing in Berkeley. The department puts a special emphasis on meeting the needs of residents who are low-income, homeless, seniors or disabled. 

Barton oversees four divisions: the Berkeley Housing Authority; Program Planning, Management and Budget; Housing Services, and the Energy Office. 

In addition the department administers state and federal grants to 75 nonprofit organizations that provide a wide range of social services that include job training, homeless prevention and child care. 

Barton said he sees the role of the Housing Department as critical to maintaining Berkeley’s rich culture and diversity. He said the high cost of housing is changing the city’s social fabric.  

“As each home or apartment becomes available the new tenants are of a higher economic level than those who just left,” he said. “This is a period of major social change for Berkeley.” 

If the trend continues, Barton said the result will be a change in the social character of Berkeley due to the replacement of blue collar workers, teachers and those who pursue careers of higher value such as art, research and social services. 

“Now you can go to a reading at a book store where the author walks from his home to read his work,” he said. “Those same authors won’t be able to walk from their homes any more unless we make housing available at below current market rates.” 

Barton was born and raised in the New York area where his father was a professor at Columbia University. Shortly after graduating Haverford College in 1972, he came to California. 

He said he came west on an unlicensed bus line called the Gray Rabbit, which left him off at the corner of University Avenue and Sixth Street. “It was April 12, 1973,” he said. “The bus had come across county through the desert and when we came into California the mountains were green and sunny. It was just a tremendous sight.” 

With the exception of one year back in New York, Barton has lived in the Bay Area ever since. 

Among Barton’s goals for the Housing Department is turning over the 61 units of public housing to a tenant-run management system so the BHA can focus on its main task, which is to provide as many Section 8 vouchers as possible. 

“The city of Berkeley is not a very good housing manager,” he said, “Others can do much better.” 

Barton said one of the things he is most proud of accomplishing during his tenure as acting director is detailing the problems with the BHA, bringing them to the attention of the BHA Board and developing a business plan to turn the agency around. 

“You don’t solve problems without recognizing how bad they are,” he said.