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New Housing Authority Board in the Works

By Judith Scherr
Friday November 24, 2006

While a new governance structure for the Berkeley Housing Authority may buy federally subsidized renters more time in their Berkeley homes, subsidy cuts could force them out. 

A BHA decision last week, aimed at creating a governing board that can provide adequate attention to low-income housing needs, will scrap the present governance structure of the agency that oversees subsidized housing in Berkeley. 

The BHA board currently consists of the mayor, City Council and two low-income tenants and generally meets once each month for about 40 minutes each time. The problems facing the agency, including poor data collection, inadeqate inspection of units, poor maintenance of the waiting list and more, have been, in part, blamed on inadequate board oversignt. 

Had the BHA not supported an alternate structure, the Department of Housing and Urban Development would likely have placed the local agency under the jurisdiction of an outside organization, such as the Oakland Housing Authority, or under the jurisdiction of HUD itself, Housing Director Steve Barton said in an interview Tuesday. 

HUD told the city that the new form of governance “is the only way to do this if you want to maintain local control.” Barton said. 

Berkeley oversees about 1,600 units in the HUD-run Section 8 rental voucher program, which provides about two-thirds of a very low-income family’s rent, with the tenant paying about one-third. HUD offers market-rate rents to landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers. Many Section 8 renters are elderly or disabled. 

Last week’s council resolution approved, in concept only, the new governance structure, consisting of five commissioners appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council and two tenant commissioners. The city must work out new contractual relationships with the Housing Authority to continue providing services such as personnel and accounting. 

The new structure will likely be in place in July, the beginning of the new fiscal year, Barton said, explaining that he believes HUD will be unlikely to take the BHA functions away from the city before giving it time to put the new structure into place. 

Low-income housing activist Lynda Carson, who holds a Section 8 voucher in Oakland, said maintaining local control is vital for Berkeley residents with Secton 8 vouchers. Outside control “would cause a huge displacement of low-income people out of Berkeley,” she said. 

If another agency took over, payment standards might be lowered to the average rents in other parts of the county, preventing people from finding places in Berkeley that they can afford to rent, she said. “Future generations of Berkeley citizens will no longer be given a voucher—they will be directed to the county as a whole.” 

While the new structure should give some assurances to local Section 8 renters that they will be able to remain in their apartments, another anxiety-provoking issue remains. 

HUD has said that the Fair Market Rent—the gross amount that landlords receive from HUD including the tenant one-third participation and HUD’s two-third’s share—will decrease March 1 in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. If that happens, tenants will either have to make up the difference, which is impossible for most, or they will have to move either out of Berkeley or to a lower rent district in Berkeley.  

That would result in a greater concentration of lower-income people in one area, something that HUD discourages, Barton said. The city and county are lobbying HUD to allow the higher rents, commensurate with the high cost of housing in the area. 

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland-Berkeley, weighed in on the question in an Oct. 10 letter to the San Francisco HUD office. 

“I urge you to consider maintaining local control of BHA programs,” she wrote. “As you may know, Berkeley rents are, on average, higher than rents in neighboring cities and higher than the county average. These vouchers need to reflect the local housing market of the households that are using them …. Many Berkeley residents who depend on BHA programs for shelter also use supportive services offered by the City of Berkeley.” 

The question of governance is separate, though related, to the “troubled” housing agency status. If the agency does not improve in a number of areas, HUD has said it could remove the agency from local control.  

HUD rates the BHA in a number of areas, one is data collection. At one point in recent months the city thought it could break out of the “troubled” category, but HUD deemed the agency’s data collection inadequate, among other problems. Barton said he thinks that, as new systems are put in place – one is contracting out for inspection services – agency scores will improve, but he said the “troubled” designation might not be lifted for one year. 

One large task underway is determining which of the 5,000 people on the Section 8 waiting list since 2001 are still eligible for and want Section 8 vouchers. The waiting list has not been updated for six years.  

Barton acknowledged that people could have moved from their 2001 addresses without notifying the housing authority that they were moving. Some may be homeless.  

Although Monday was the deadline for returning waiting list forms, Barton said those with good reasons for turning in the forms late could appeal. 

He also said he hopes as the BHA sets up a new waiting list, that social service agencies will allow persons with housing needs to use their addresses. “If you are homeless, you may get knocked off the list,” Barton said. 

Further, Barton noted he had wanted to prioritize some Section 8 vouchers for people with severe disabilities, but HUD rules would not accommodate that. “We formally made the case to HUD that the wait list process discriminates against people with disabilities,” he said. 

Barton said he thinks that the when the Democrats take over Congress, they may be more flexible with Section 8 rules. “Having the Democrats doing oversight may result in HUD focusing more on their mission and less on detailed rule enforcement,” he said.