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Council Faces City Housing Authority’s Failures

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 30, 2006

The Housing Authority Board convened for an extended meeting Tuesday to face the bitter reality that the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) is a troubled agency.  

The Housing Authority, charged with managing the city’s public housing programs and buildings, is under the gun to correct deficiencies in its administration of the federal Section 8 program, which provides about 1,800 rental vouchers to low-income residents. 

Today (Friday) is the deadline. A report is due to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 45 to 60 days.  

The agency is earning a passing grade, said Beverli Marshall, interim director for the Berkeley Housing Authority, but just barely. 

Outstanding concerns include housing quality standards, incomplete housing inspections and annual re-examinations, and tenant income miscalculations. HUD will have to verify the report and may not release results until October or November.  

Even if the authority survives this hurdle—one of many in the agency’s long, troubled history—“there are still severe internal problems at the BHA that will remain,” said Housing Department Director Stephen Barton, in a communication to the Housing Authority Board. 

Tenants and landlords know firsthand.  

“Members of the property owners association who have had dealings with the Housing Authority are generally disappointed with it,” said Michael Wilson, president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association. “We hear stories all the time about improper dealings.” 

One resident, Joanna Spencer, 69, claims she wound up homeless because the authority erred in processing her Section 8 voucher. Spencer, currently sleeping on couches, hopes the authority will grant her a new voucher.  

“I’ve been through hell these last five years,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I said, (to the authority) ‘Let’s make this right,’ and they refused to do it.” 

The authority’s grave problems derive, at least in part, from staff shortages, a dearth of sound management and inadequate funds, Barton said.  

The authority has gone through three managers in four years. Former manager Sharon Jackson resigned abruptly in January, under suspicion of fraud—charges that were never substantiated—and Marshall, her replacement, is on loan from the Berkeley Public Library, where she is the financial manager. (Technically her position with the housing authority ends today, though she may stay on longer.) 

The federal government, which supports the agency with an annual budget of about $27.4 million, is cutting funds for administrative fees (though funding for Section 8 vouchers is on the rise). In the last few years, the authority has decreased staffing from 19 to 13 employees to remain solvent, Barton said.  

The 11-member Housing Authority Board, composed of city councilmembers and two residents-at-large, unanimously agreed Tuesday to earmark $150,000 in general funds for additional staffing. But some councilmembers fear they may be throwing money into a black hole. 

“I really don’t have any faith that anything is going to be any better,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. “I’m just not very optimistic.” 

Also Tuesday, the board voted to authorize the city manager to negotiate with HUD over reorganizing the agency. Options include appointing a permanent manager, sending the agency into receivership, abolishing it altogether or folding it into another organization like the Alameda County housing authority—though it is unclear whether the county, or any other agency, is interested in the added workload. 

City Councilmember Dona Spring adamantly supports maintaining the authority as a local entity.  

“We’ve got to do everything in our power to keep the Berkeley Housing Authority in Berkeley,” she said in a phone interview earlier this week, pointing out that in another agency’s hands, Berkeley residents may not get a fair shot at assisted housing.  

Her sentiment, though, is not shared by all. 

“Frankly I don’t care if we pass” the HUD report, said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. “I think we need to get a housing authority that’s functional.” 

For former city officials, the story is all too familiar.  

Fred Collignon, who served on the Berkeley City Council in the 1980s and ‘90s, recalled that the authority was more troubled then than it is now.  

“Sometimes it was bad management, sometimes it was the difficulty of staff discipline,” he said. “It was not seen as a very efficient unit.” 

At the time, council debated—and ultimately opted against--handing the authority over to Alameda County, he said. 

Ex-Mayor Shirley Dean cites similar deficiencies dating as far back as 1975, when she first sat on the Berkeley City Council. 

“The Housing Authority has been a difficult situation for as long as I can remember,” she said. She pointed to an evergreen backlog of inspections, and managerial problems “that were very disturbing,” she said, including one instance where a manager was accused of fraud. (Charges were later dropped, Dean said.) 

During Dean’s tenure as mayor, rats infested public housing on Ward Street. The housing authority subsequently turned over management of all 75 of its public housing units to an outside organization. The organization now in charge has, recently, been the subject of numerous tenant complaints. 

The explanation for the authority’s pervasive flaws has always vacillated between personnel problems and funding shortages, Dean said. But that may not be the full picture, she said. She faults the City Council for not assuming a stronger leadership role. 

“If greater oversight was exercised by City Council long ago, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now,” Dean said. “…It’s a shame, because I don’t think it’s insurmountable. I think the problem is neglect.”