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Citizens Rally for Ailing City Housing Authority

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday July 14, 2006

A rally to save Berkeley’s troubled Housing Authority drew about two-dozen supporters Tuesday. 

Public housing tenants and advocates gathered at the steps of Old City Hall to call for the preservation of the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA), the city agency under pressure to mend a number of administrative and managerial problems which have put it at risk of dissolution or restructuring. 

“Hey, hey, what do you say? We’ve got to save BHA,” chanted the protesters, many whom held signs, some of which read “Save your own housing,” and “Heart is where the home is. Keep BHA at home.” 

The Housing Authority owns 75 units of affordable housing in Berkeley and locally administers multiple public housing programs, including about 1,800 Section 8 vouchers. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued the authority a June 30 deadline to correct a list of deficiencies, among them: miscalculated rents, incomplete inspections and re-evaluations, and problems with housing quality standards. 

HUD, which gives about $27.4 million a year to the Berkeley agency, is expected to evaluate results by fall. 

“There are management problems that need to be fixed,” said City Councilmember Kriss Worthington to the crowd Tuesday. “We need to put pressure on those officials to make sure it’s an effective agency.” 

A handful of speakers, determined to save the authority, detailed their success stories in public housing. 

Nasira S. Abdul-Aleem said Section 8 allowed her to get through graduate school without the fear that she might not be able to pay her rent. Joyce Hawkins, a Section 8 tenant who is disabled, said because of subsidized housing, she was able to stay home to raise her children.  

“It’s possible, by having the Housing Authority, [that] we’re able to access all the services Berkeley has available to us disabled people,” she said, adding, “Poor people can’t afford to take the bus to Hayward.”  

If the Berkeley Housing Authority fails to meet HUD’s standards, the agency could fold into another authority, like that of Oakland or Alameda County, which is located in Hayward. 

The Housing Authority of the County of Alameda is listed as a high-performing agency, though it has faced many of the same setbacks as Berkeley: declining funding, management turnover and the whims of federal administrators. 

According to county Executive Director Chris Gouig the formula for a functional agency is labor-intensive, but was doable. She said, “It’s a lot of record-keeping, doing it correctly and doing it on time.” 

Gouig said she has not been contacted by the city of Berkeley about a possible consolidation. 

Contrary to the fears of many Section 8 recipients, county control would not spell the end of assisted housing for current tenants, said City Manager Phil Kamlarz. However, voucher payment standards vary between authorities, and Berkeley’s are among the highest. 

In Berkeley, landlords receive as much as $1,150 in Section 8 money for a one-bedroom apartment; a comparable unit in Oakland would bring up to $1,090. 

One fear in losing the authority, says Stephen Barton, the city’s Housing Department director, is that Berkeley landlords may not accept lower payments from Section 8 tenants.  

HUD could also opt to send the authority into receivership, shut it down altogether or mandate new governance.  

Barton has attributed the authority’s pervasive problems to inconsistent management (city staff is currently looking for the agency’s fourth manager in four years), staff shortages, and shaky federal support. 

HUD is slashing funds to local housing authorities across the country; in Berkeley, this has resulted in an estimated $285,000 shortage over the last two years. Federal support for administrative costs is expected to decrease by an additional 8 percent this year, Barton said. 

Several speakers Tuesday faulted President Bush for the demise of the Housing Authority.  

“We’re losing our housing because that is the Bush administration’s agenda,” Frances Hailman called out to cheering protesters. “The word(s) ‘affordable housing’ (have) been redefined. (They) now mean housing we can’t afford.”  

A representative from the San Francisco HUD Regional Director’s Office did not return a call to comment. 

Some tenants and landlords have recently expressed less support for the Berkeley Housing Authority. Surendra Barot, who owns an apartment complex on Russell Street, told the Daily Planet in June that he was opting out of Section 8 because the bureaucracy’s inefficiency is interminable. A resident of his building also complained bitterly about the agency’s lack of responsiveness to tenant needs. 

Following Tuesday’s rally, public housing advocates crowded into Council Chambers, where they competed for the council’s ear with warm pool users, clean money proponents, landmarks preservationists and others peddling their respective causes. The Housing Authority was not on the agenda--July 25 is the next meeting of the 11-member Berkeley Housing Authority Board--but protesters were intent on voicing their concerns. 

“If I lose Section 8, I will be on the street,” said Berkeley resident Ann Maux. “The Berkeley Housing Authority—taking it out of Berkeley makes no sense at all. It’s the Berkeley Housing Authority and it should stay in Berkeley.”