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Citizens Press to Save Control of Housing Authority

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday July 11, 2006

Hoping to maintain affordable housing for the city’s most vulnerable citizens, local activists are rallying to save the beleaguered Berkeley Housing Authority. 

The agency, long beset by administrative deficiencies, is at risk of dissolution or other restructuring if it fails to earn passing marks on a self-evaluation due to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at summer’s close. Results are expected in the fall.  

Public housing advocates plan to gather today (Tuesday) for a press conference on the steps of Old City Hall, where they will pressure city councilmembers to flex their power to keep the agency in Berkeley. 

“The crisis with the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) is that all of us who are seniors, disabled, low-income people are threatened,” said Eleanor Walden, a Section 8 recipient for 10 years and member of the Rent Stabilization Board. She is co-organizing Tuesday’s event. 

“What we’re trying to do is make clear that we have to protect the housing authority from HUD,” she said. 

The Berkeley Housing Authority manages the city’s public housing programs, including the federal Section 8 program, which offers rental assistance to about 1,800 low-income residents, of whom about half are seniors or disabled, according to Housing Director Stephen Barton. The agency also owns 75 units of public housing. It is funded through HUD, with an annual budget of approximately $27.4 million.  

Myriad flaws plague the authority’s administration of the Section 8 program: miscalculated rents, a housing inspection backlog, problems with housing quality standards and others. 

The Housing Authority is under pressure to correct those deficiencies or face dire consequences, such as absorption into another agency, receivership or total disbandment. In what is billed as the best-case scenario, the authority would secure a new manager and continue to operate as is.  

Housing Authority sympathizers hope for the latter. 

“We don’t want HUD to take control and we don’t want another agency to take control because we would lose the guaranteed funding,” said Linda Carson, a Section 8 recipient.  

According to Barton, if the Berkeley Housing Authority is folded into another authority, there would be no assurance that 1,800 vouchers, whose payments standards range between $952 for a studio to $1,847 for a three-bedroom, stay in Berkeley. However, the city’s existing Section 8 recipients would not lose their vouchers. 

Problems clamping down on the agency stem from funding and staff shortages, Barton has said. 

The Berkeley Housing Authority is on its third manager in four years; the current manager, Beverli Marshall, is on loan from the Berkeley Public Library. 

Financial support from the federal government for administering the Section 8 program has declined. Two years ago, HUD reduced administrative fees by 13 percent, and is expected to slash the budget an additional 8 percent this year, Barton said. To offset funding shortages, the authority cut back the staff roster, from 19 to 13 employees over several years. 

Proponents say the authority is worth saving, imperfections withstanding. 

“I personally believe, as an activist, that housing is a right, and that as people, we have to fight for that right,” said Walden. “I think it’s an obscenity to have to walk over people in the street, and that we don’t have a viable policy for housing those people.” 

Fliers for Tuesday’s press conference went out to the city’s senior housing complexes, the Gray Panthers, tenant rights attorneys and others. Walden expects about two dozen people to attend.  

The 11-member Berkeley Housing Authority Board, composed of city councilmembers and two residents-at-large, agreed at its last meeting to grant City Manager Phil Kamlarz the power to negotiate with HUD over possibly restructuring the agency. And, in a last ditch effort to strengthen internal operations, board members earmarked $150,000 in general fund money for additional administrative staff.  

But some city councilmembers have cast doubt on whether the authority can pull itself out of the mud. 

At the meeting, City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli was quoted saying, “Frankly, I don’t care if we pass (the HUD report). I think we need to get a housing authority that’s functional.” 

Margot Smith, of the Berkeley Gray Panthers, disagrees.  

“Berkeley has invested a lot of money and effort to have really good public housing,” she said, pointing out, as an example, that the city effectively deconcentrated low-income housing. “I know there are management problems, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”