The Berkeley Housing Authority’s Section 8 program is mismanaged, poorly staffed, and on the brink of insolvency, according to a sweeping independent study delivered to BHA board members Friday.
The $100,000 report compiled by Ronnie Odom of MDStrum Housing Services—conducted at the request of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and paid for by the federal agency—found problems ranging from thousands of dollars lost in miscalculated rents, no procedures for managing a waiting list of 5,000 applicants for Section 8 housing vouchers, and a backlog of 900 housing units not inspected.
Berkeley Housing Director Steve Barton said the report’s findings came as no surprise to him. The authority—which manages all public housing units in Berkeley as well as Section 8 vouchers—has flunked itself on repeated self-evaluations.
“The housing authority is lacking just about everywhere, and has been for some time,” Barton said.
Berkeley has the only “troubled” agency in the East Bay, said HUD Program Assistant Sue Platania.
Section 8 is the largest housing subsidy program in the country. Eligible residents pay 30 percent of their income for an apartment, with HUD footing the bill for the rest. HUD is also responsible for paying a fee to the housing authority to manage the program.
Odom concluded that the housing authority’s current problems stem from a frantic drive over the past three years to ramp up the number of housing vouchers to the allotted 1,841 tenants provided by the federal government. That effort has diverted resources from establishing procedures and protocols aligned with HUD regulations, he said.
Even worse, according to Odom, was that with the city now approaching full use of all its available Section 8 vouchers, the three housing representatives find it nearly impossible to provide service to the growing number of tenants. Two housing representatives retired last year, but with salaries for the jobs between $55,000 and $60,000 a year, the authority’s budget does not allow it to hire replace them.
With roughly 1800 units rented the three housing representatives—out of the authority’s 17 employees—are each responsible for about 600 cases. Odom said that is double the workload in a typical housing authority.
“They’re doing the best they can, but they’re essentially working two jobs,” he said.
Of the roughly $1.9 million the authority gets to administer the program, $1.5 million goes to staff salaries and benefits, leaving precious few dollars for other administration costs. Although the authority is currently solvent, Odom projected an $87,000 deficit in 2006 and a $156,000 deficit in 2007.
That might be just the tip of the iceberg. HUD is basing next years funding on the lease-up totals presented last August. At the time Berkeley had placed tenants for 1,650 vouchers, but Barton said a computer problem recorded the total at just 1,449. The city will get a chance to appeal, but if that number stands, it would decrease funds to Berkeley and plunge the authority into debt.
The long-term answer to the authority’s fiscal woes, Odom said, was to reduce the number of administrative staffers and hire more housing representatives.
“You have a lot of clerks sitting around all day doing nothing,” said Odom who didn’t hesitate to spread the blame around.
He criticized the authority’s management system, which puts several layers of authority between Executive Director Sharon Jackson and the board, and lets the three housing representatives “run three different housing authorities.” Odom also blasted its inclusion of what he called “fluff” programs that are designed to supply some residents with extra services, but, in his estimation, waste vital staff resources.
Odom is in the process of writing new procedures for the authority and training its members to follow HUD guidelines.
The housing authority board—comprised of the City Council and two elected members—didn’t escape Odom’s wrath either.
“You are all part of the problem,” he told them. Councilmembers and other politicians sometimes encourage the authority to sidestep HUD rules when they are advocating for a constituent, Odom said.
Councilmembers refuted that claim, but agreed they needed to do a better job of overseeing the program.
“It isn’t until the federal government gets on our case that we have a real housing authority meeting,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
Commission meetings are held monthly, but usually squeezed in just before the city council convenes.
Councilmember Miriam Hawley proposed hour-long meetings to start a discussion on the authority’s problems.
Though, he acknowledged the authority was troubled, Housing Director Barton said he didn’t regret his emphasis on leasing up the number of vouchers.
“The lease-up is just plain more important [than the administrative concerns raised by HUD],” he said. “If you have the vouchers you have the [financial resources] to work on other issues,” he said.
Three years ago, the number of rented Section 8 units in the city sank to 1,260 as the combination of ending rent control on vacated units and spiraling rent prices made Section 8 unattractive for landlords who could get more money from the market.
Fewer vouchers meant less money for the housing authority. During the last few years, the authority needed a $150,000 bail out from the city and tapped its reserves to stay solvent while it ramped up its vouchers. At present, one percent of the vouchers go to developers, though more vouchers have been assigned to two Affordable Housing Associates projects in the pipeline.
Barton welcomed Odom’s help, but said it was “ironic” that HUD was coming down hard on the authority now, when its finances are improved and three years after Berkeley had first requested the assistance.
Should the authority become insolvent, Berkeley would likely have to join the Alameda County Housing Authority, and would lose the guarantee of 1,841 housing vouchers for Berkeley residents.
Barton said the authority was in the process of redeploying workers and training clerks so they can help housing representatives with rent evaluations and income eligibility research and free them to do more unit inspections.
Still, on some matters, the housing director didn’t think HUD recommendations would work in Berkeley. He said the layers of authority that have the executive director report to him and him report to Phil Kamlarz, who reports to the board, might be unusual, but it gives the board a thorough overview of Berkeley’s total housing picture.
Barton also said a suggestion to streamline the voucher applications might help the city lease-up more quickly but could hurt the city’s neediest citizens. “We’ve helped hundreds of Berkeley residents in danger of becoming homeless,” he said. “I think that is what the City Council, the board, and the people of Berkeley want, even if some people think its slowing us down.”›