Berkeley’s Housing Authority Administers Section 8, Public Housing

Friday May 14, 2004

For many Berkeley voters, Friday’s special Berkeley Housing Authority afternoon meeting was unexpected. The sparse turnout may have been due to several factors. Matthew Artz’s article “HUD Report Finds big Problems with City’s Section 8 Program” (Daily Planet, May 11-13) account is well done, but the complex structure of subsidized housing everywhere and in Berkeley in particular inevitably leaves a few necessary clarifications. 

Section 8 refers to a portion of federal legislation administered by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; it has been providing rent subsidies for low-income persons. Tenants generally pay one third of their income in rent, with the balance subsidized by HUD. In most communities, there are two approaches a low-income person can take to a rent-subsidized Section 8 unit. 

The Berkeley Housing Authority works with HUD to administer a tenant-based Section 8 program and periodically, a voucher lottery. There has been a list of voucher category-priorities that has varied so frequently that it is difficult to keep up! (e.g. Berkeley residents, disabled, elderly, homeless, veterans, etc. etc. have been mentioned.) Once a person obtains a voucher, s/he must locate a vacant apartment whose landlord will accept a Section 8 tenant and work with the Berkeley Housing Authority. 

But note that the Berkeley Housing Authority also administers public housing. It is not always clear to the public (and seemingly at times to some Berkeley Housing Authority members) that these two separate-but-attached-at-the-spine entities are administered by the BHA. Maintenance of the physical facilities of this public housing component has often been decried by Berkeley public housing tenants. 

Additionally, there are several project-based Section 8 buildings in Berkeley; low-income persons apply directly to the owners/developers, which are usually nonprofit organizations, e.g. Affordable Housing Associates and Satellite Housing, Inc. The Berkeley Housing Authority has been criticized for transferring some of its Section 8 vouchers to developers of project-based buildings. 

The Berkeley Housing Authority uniquely consists of the members of the City Council, the mayor, and two appointed members representing Section 8 tenant-based (Ms. Clark) and public housing (Ms. Payne). They are “elected” only in the sense that the council gets to consider them and vote. Significantly, the mayor refers to councilmembers when he means, or should be saying, Housing Authority members, and thus the public appears to be returning to this misperception. Mayor Dean quickly caught and corrected herself in this brain-teaser paradox. The BHA has not been meeting monthly; when it does meet, it is an afterthought, tacked on to or snuck in before snack-time and council. I recall one meeting this year that was begun before and ended after the two “representative” Housing Authority members had arrived! 

Only one person expressed objection to the inadequacy and unfairness of only two minutes’ allocation of public comment for each of the chosen few at the May 7 Berkeley Housing Authority special meeting. Worse is the fact that the published agenda provides “Public Comment: A total of 30 minutes is scheduled. Each speaker is limited to a maximum of three minutes.” For a while there it seemed that objections to the mayor’s attempt to impose this restriction on the public comment periods of ALL meetings had been successful. Perhaps the risk seemed less on this occasion. 

Under BMC 23C.12, the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, 20 percent of all new residential construction with five units or more must be “affordable” to low income people, regardless of whether it is for profit or nonprofit. State law does not require this, but offers a “density bonus” to developers who provide a certain percentage of “affordable” units. The nonprofit buildings are generally 100 percent “affordable” rather than 20 percent. “Affordable” can be out of the reach of some low-income persons, however. 

The Housing Authority of the County of Alameda (HACA) is located in Hayward. HACA’s principal programs and its funding are through HUD. It provides rental assistance to 5,000-plus low-income households through Section 8 and Public Housing programs. The HACA serves the incorporated cities of Albany, Dublin, Emeryville, Fremont, Hayward, Newark, Pleasanton, San Leandro, and Union City, and the unincorporated cities of Castro Valley and San Lorenzo. HACA does not provide rental assistance to persons in the cities of Alameda, Berkeley, Livermore and Oakland, which have their own Housing Authorities. 

In the past, expensive consultants have been recruited and paid by the BHA. If indeed HUD has paid for this consultant, I say hooray for Ronnie Odom! 


Helen Wheeler has served as a member of the Berkeley Housing Authority and as its Section 8 RAB liaison, North Berkeley Senior Center Advisory Council and as its secretary, Berkeley Commission on Aging and as its vice chair, Alameda County Advisory Commission on Aging and as its Legislative Committee chair and Health and Safety Committee vice chair, and as a founding-member of the defunct grassroots “Save Section 8.”