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Housing Authority Faces Friday Federal Deadline

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday June 27, 2006

The deadline for the embattled Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) to correct a laundry list of managerial deficiencies is fast approaching. 

The authority has until June 30 to show the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that it is a “standard performing” agency, but with a paucity of staff, high management turnover and a dwindling administrative budget, the authority must prepare for eventualities, including a possible takeover by another agency. 

Tonight (Tuesday), at 6 p.m., BHA staff will ask the authority’s board, comprised of city councilmembers and two residents, to allocate general fund money for additional staff and to authorize the city manager to negotiate reorganization options with the federal housing department. 

The Berkeley Housing Authority provides rental assistance to 1,800 Berkeley residents through the federal Section 8 program and manages other local housing programs. The authority also owns 75 public housing units. Its annual budget, through HUD, is about $27.4 million. 

In 2004, HUD released a report detailing deep flaws in the authority’s operations. Tenants’ shares of the rent had been miscalculated, regular housing inspections had failed to take place and there was no efficient system in place to manage a waiting list of some 5,000 residents. The authority was deemed “troubled” and has since embarked upon a seemingly Sisyphean effort to correct its shortcomings. 

The problems stem in part from the federal government increasingly slashing funding for housing authority administration, said Stephen Barton, director of the Housing Department. Berkeley Housing Interim Authority Manager Beverli Marshall was away from work this week. 

“HUD has been cutting the administration fees paid to housing authorities, and at this point the housing authority can’t get all the work done it needs to get done,” Barton said. 

Two years ago, HUD reduced administrative fees by 13 percent, resulting in estimated shortages of $73,000 in 2004 and $212,000 in 2005. Congress is considering trimming the administrative budget by an additional 8 percent this year, Barton said. 

Much of the workload, including Section 8 inspections and janitorial services, is contracted out. Other work simply doesn’t get done. Over the years, the authority has reduced staff from 19 to 13 employees, Barton said. 

“With caseloads between 415 and 430 per case manager, there is not enough time to process all of the annual re-examinations, interim re-examinations and requests for tenancy,” Barton wrote in a correspondence to the authority board. 

The authority, typically an independent agency, is asking the board to earmark $150,000 from the city’s general fund for additional staffing for the 2007 fiscal year. 

That won’t save the authority from the scrutiny of HUD, though. 

If by Friday, the local agency has not pulled itself out of the doldrums, HUD may rule at a later date to turn the authority over to a larger agency, like the Housing Authority of the County of Alameda, send it into receivership or dissolve it altogether. 

A brighter scenario would involve stabilizing management and continuing to operate as a local outfit, Barton said, which would ensure local control.  

“If the Berkeley Housing Authority was dissolved, its vouchers would go (ostensibly) to Alameda County, and then there’d be no guarantee 1,800 Berkeley households would get assistance,” he said. 

Additionally, the authority is involved in coordinating with local housing development and, to a lesser extent, the city’s homeless programs—features that would be lost on an external organization, he said. 

City Councilmember Dona Spring echoed his concern. 

“We’ve got to do everything we can to keep the Berkeley Housing Authority in Berkeley,” she said. “These tenant are depending on us to make sure they don’t get short-shrifted at another agency.” 

Tonight, the BHA board is expected to grant City Manager Phil Kamlarz the power to work out a deal with HUD over the future of the authority. 

A report on the housing authority’s performance is due to HUD in mid-August. HUD should determine whether or not the agency has improved by October, Barton said.  

“The immediate focus is on getting the Housing Authority out of troubled status and coming to an agreement with HUD,” Barton said. “During that (time), we need to look at how can we make the internal functions more efficient?” 

Residents give the housing authority mixed reviews. 

Virginia Henkel, 68, has been on Section 8 in Berkeley for 22 years. She’s never had any problems with the agency. “I’m very satisfied,” she said. 

For Roger Aarons, a 29-year veteran of the program, the housing authority has proved more troublesome. A few months ago, his landlord opted out of Section 8, forcing Aarons to decide whether to maintain his apartment on rent control or take his voucher elsewhere. When he solicited the authority for help, he came up against a brickwall. 

“I didn’t even know who to talk to necessarily. I didn’t get a response to my calls. I couldn’t find out from the housing authority what the rules are,” he said. “I’m not naive, and I find it very difficult to figure out the rules.” 

Landlord Surendra Barot, who manages the building where Henkel and Aarons live, complains that the housing authority has fed him misinformation and has repeatedly botched payments. (Most recently, employees erred in his favor; he received voucher payments for Aarons’s apartment, though Aarons is no longer on Section 8.) 

Barot said he is starting to pull his units off Section 8 because he is so fed up with the agency. He said: “It’s a huge frustration on my part dealing with the Berkeley Housing Authority.”