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City Officials Take Blame for Housing Authority Mess

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday August 29, 2006

Members of the Save Berkeley Housing Authority (Save BHA), low-income Berkeley residents and city officials got together at the South Berkeley Senior Center on Saturday to discuss the future of public housing and the Section 8 program in Berkeley. 

Currently in its fourth year of being listed as a “troubled agency” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the BHA was dropped from being listed as a standard performer because of errors in reports submitted to HUD and also because of its numerous errors in running the public housing and Section 8 programs. 

The Berkeley City Council sits as the governing board of the Berkeley Housing Authority. Councilmember Kriss Worthington acknowledged that the City Council has made mistakes with managing the BHA. 

“We should not have got the Housing Authority into trouble,” Worthington said. “We should have spent more than five to 10 minutes at each meeting to learn about what was going on with the Housing Authority. We definitely weren’t doing a good job of supervising the BHA. We need to spend at least an hour or two every month on supervising the management.” 

Councilmembers Max Anderson and Laurie Capitelli echoed his thoughts. 

“We need to make a major longterm commitment,” said Anderson. “We haven’t spent the kind of time we need to spend on oversight. We need to have a body which is dedicated full time to overseeing the BHA.” 

Steve Barton, BHA director, discussed some of the implications of HUD’s position. 

“Because of our troubled status, HUD has given us the following alternatives: We should consider abandoning BHA and merge our resources with the Alameda County Housing Authority or keep it in Berkeley and give it a separate board of directors and better management,” he said. 

The majority of the tenants who want to save the BHA seemed in favor of the latter suggestion.  

Members of Save BHA put forward their demands to the City of Berkeley: city replacement of all future HUD funding shortfalls out of the city general fund to properly maintain BHA, timely re-certifications and contract renewals, and a six month notice to tenants of any change in Section 8 vouchers. 

Tia Ingram, acting BHA manager, said BHA had scored 90 points out of 145 in a Section 8 Management Assessment Program (SEMAP) report that had been submitted to HUD on Friday. (SEMAP scores how well the Housing Authority is doing in running the Section 8 program and public housing operations.) BHA’s current score gives it the minimum 60 percent required for a passing grade on the report. 

Lower-income tenants were distressed when they heard from Barton that one-third of the more than 1,800 families in the BHA faced a reduction in Section 8 rent payments to their landlords beginning April 2007. As a result of this reduction, tenants might have to pay more rent or move into cheaper apartments. 

“We haven’t sent out a notice to the tenants or the landlords yet because we will know about HUD’s decision on this by the end of this year,” Barton said. “That gives us plenty of time to let people know. We don’t want people to start reacting from fear as if it’s definitely going to happen. We are trying our best to make sure that it does not happen.” 

Both tenants and city officials agreed to work to implement some changes. These included: 

• Promising that calls to BHA from Section 8 tenants would be acknowledged within 24 hours. (If not then complaints would be accepted at 981-5470.) 

• Publishing a newsletter by tenants containing contact numbers of BHA officials and other relevant information. (This would be separate from the BHA newsletter.) 

• Letting HUD know when BHS has “done it right.” 

• Putting development money towards vouchers. 

• Agreeing that inspections that would be confirmed in writing to tenants. 

It was also decided that tenants would: 

• Attend City Council meetings or BHA board meetings when it was time to vote on important issues. 

• Be prepared to submit correct paperwork for income verification at the right time. 

• Sign up for the BHA board meetings which meet the third Tuesday of each month. 

Jesse Arreguin, commissioner of Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board, said that Section 8 tenants should continue to work to lobby city officials and federal officials to save the Section 8 program. 

“We need to have an active Section 8 tenant’s movement which will address some of these issues,” he said. “Something like a citizen’s advisory commission which is separate from the ten members who are already on the BHA.”