Page One

Missed Phone Call Costs Berkeley Man His Home

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday February 03, 2004

Berkeley—virtually world headquarters of the educated eccentric—would seem a perfect home for Paul Mitchell. 

A licensed airplane body and engine mechanic, the Manhattan-born, Toronto-raised and widely traveled Mitchell (Europe, Africa, Japan, and Brazil) has a B.A. in English from Cornell University and a Masters in Educational Psychology from Santa Clara University. Tall, articulate, and soft-spoken, a former athlete, with a thick, salt-and-pepper beard and hair stuffed into a bright-colored knit cap, the 55-year-old Mitchell can talk for hours—if you let him—on subjects ranging from black literature to the Prince Hall Masons (the black Masonic organization) to the origins of blue tick coonhounds (George Washington, he will tell you, received five of them as a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette, which is how the dogs got to America in the first place). 

On Thursday, Mitchell will learn from the Berkeley Housing Authority if he’ll have to keep living in a van on the Berkeley streets with his two dogs. 

Three months ago, Mitchell was evicted from his rental home in a two-story peeling-paint duplex across the street from Malcolm X Elementary on Ashby Avenue, where he had lived since December, 2002. Because he failed to notify the Berkeley Housing Authority about his eviction, the agency soon began the procedure to revoke Mitchell’s Section 8 Housing voucher. 

Section 8 vouchers are like gold for low-income renters. In Berkeley alone, with only 1,700 vouchers issued, there are 5,000 people on the waiting list to receive them. Without the voucher, which authorizes the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay 70 percent of Mitchell’s rent, his Supplemental Security Income disability checks aren’t enough to pay for housing. His disability comes from a recreational accident that resulted in a steel rod in his lower leg. 

And why did Mitchell fail to notify the Berkeley Housing Authority about his eviction? 

Because he was in the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin when the eviction notice was issued. 

“I tried to contact the housing authority,” he says. But it’s a long-distance telephone call from Dublin to Berkeley, he explains, and “the housing authority doesn’t accept collect calls.” 

Berkeley Housing Director Steve Barton said he was prohibited by law from talking about the case, and wasn’t even permitted to confirm the names of participants in the city’s various subsidized housing programs. 

Tenants qualify for Section 8 vouchers by either earning less than half of area median income, or by meeting a joint disability and low-income guideline. Qualified tenants are then placed on a waiting list for the vouchers, where can last several years. 

Barton said the vouchers can be revoked if a tenant fails to follow HUD guidelines. 

Paul Mitchell’s present problems began one evening last September when, after an evening of being “a little depressed and walking the street after drinking several Guinesses,” he said stumbled against the side of a home near the corner of McGee and Addison streets. While Berkeley police initially charged him with burglary, the charge was later reduced to trespassing. 

Mitchell’s still awaiting trial in the case, represented by the Alameda County Public Defenders Office. 

While still at Santa Rita, Mitchell received a three-day eviction notice. Released soon after, he says he returned to his Ashby Avenue house to find the locks already changed and his belongings confiscated. 

According to Mitchell’s attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, Laura Lane, Mitchell was evicted for “threatening other tenants” at the duplex, as well as for keeping his two dogs in his rental house (a Blue Tick Coonhound, of course, and a Chow). 

“He’s got to have the dogs,” Lane explained. “He’s got doctors orders for them, as companions, for his disability.” 

Landlord Chris Swain received a default judgment on the eviction, which Lane is presently fighting in Alameda County Superior Court on the grounds that Mitchell did not answer the original complaint because he was never served. 

“We’re not trying to get him back into the house,” Lane said. “Somebody else has already moved in there, and the courts aren’t going to evict the second tenant in order to satisfy the first. We’re just trying to get the eviction default off of his record. Otherwise, it will be next to impossible for him to find another house to rent.” 

Thursday’s housing authority hearing, where Mitchell will be represented by East Bay Community Law Center attorney Sharon Djemal, will determine whether the housing authority will revoke Mitchell’s Section 8 voucher. Djemal said the eviction by itself wasn’t enough to trigger the voucher revocation. 

The crucial factor was that Mitchell didn’t report it to the housing authority, and Djemal says she will argue that his incarceration prevented him from doing so. 

With the voucher, Mitchell will join 110 other Berkeley residents looking for units to rent. Without it, he’ll almost certainly remain on the street, swelling by one the ranks of Berkeley’s homeless.