New Governance Possible for City Housing Authority

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday July 28, 2006

The city is in talks with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over possibly restructuring the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) board. 

Currently ruled by the nine-member Berkeley City Council, plus two residents at large, the Housing Authority could instead fall under the guidance of an appointed board or commission, said City Manager Phil Kamlarz at a meeting of the Housing Authority board Tuesday. 

HUD, which funds the authority with about $27.4 million a year, has designated BHA “troubled” every year since 2003 for an assortment of administrative and managerial deficiencies. The federal agency believes new governance will help stabilize the authority, said Kamlarz.  

“They feel that an independent body can spend more time with the Housing Authority,” he said. 

So far this year, the Housing Authority board has met once a month, for an average of half an hour—not enough time for the council to adequately oversee Housing Authority staff and operations, said Councilmember Dona Spring. 

“The City Council has so many things on its plate,” Spring said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We need people who can devote themselves to one civic duty.” 

The Berkeley Housing Authority locally administers about 1,800 individual Section 8 vouchers and 100 project-based vouchers, owns 75 units of public housing and manages other local housing programs. 

The agency is under pressure to complete, by the end of August, a report detailing its administration of the federal Section 8 program. Problems plaguing the agency have included a backlog of inspections and re-evaluations, housing quality standard issues and management instability, among others. A new manager, the third this year alone, starts July 31.  

If BHA fails to secure satisfactory performance ratings, HUD could turn the authority over to another agency, send it into receivership, dissolve it altogether or restructure from within, Housing Department Director Steve Barton has said. Kamlarz, who was authorized in June to enter into negotiations with HUD, pointed out Thursday that new governance would not necessarily absolve BHA of more draconian consequences. 

Local public housing recipients have responded to the prospect of losing the Housing Authority with considerable panic. More than three-dozen tenants flooded Tuesday’s board meeting. About 15 speakers pressed the council to keep the agency in Berkeley, and some said they were concerned they would lose their Section 8 vouchers if HUD assumes control. Both local and federal housing agencies say such fears are unfounded.  

“We’re looking forward to finding a way to move forward and assuring tenants that these (negotiations with the City Manager) do not put tenants at risk of losing housing,” said HUD spokesperson Larry Bush. 

If the Housing Authority is given new governance, it won’t be the first time. According to Spring, an independent board ruled the authority until the early 1980s when officials determined that City Council was better-equipped to handle the agency, then beset by rampant budget problems. 

Other Bay Area housing authorities display a mix of governance structures. The Oakland Housing Authority, which provides rental assistance to or owns 14,450 units, has a seven-member, mayor-appointed Board of Commissioners. Commissioners sit on the board for a maximum of two, four-year terms. Two members are public housing tenants; they serve for two years.  

The Housing Authority of the County of Alameda assists more than 7,000 low-income households in nine cities and two unincorporated areas. A 12-member commission, comprised of city, area and tenant representatives, governs the authority. 

In Alameda, the City Council and one tenant member oversee the housing authority, which administers 1,700 tenant-based Section 8 vouchers and 475 project-based vouchers. Additionally, an appointed, seven-member Housing Commission sets policy for day-to-day operations. Richmond’s City Council is charged with overseeing the Richmond Housing Authority, an agency that owns 821 units of public housing and administers about 1,500 Section 8 vouchers. 

On Tuesday, Spring motioned for the Berkeley City Council to adopt a resolution in favor of turning the authority over to another body, though councilmembers refrained from taking a vote because the item was not on the agenda. Kamlarz is expected to present a report detailing the possible reorganization at a Housing Authority meeting Sept. 19.