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Dead Tenants Get Low-Income Housing; City Blames Staff

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday May 22, 2007

The Berkeley Housing Authority has paid rent on at least 15 units where tenants are dead—as much as two years of rent on the deceased, failed to inspect units where substandard conditions exist, and allowed ineligible family members to “inherit” a unit ahead of others on the waiting list.  

These are just a few of more than a dozen serious problems cited by City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque in a report to the Berkeley Housing Authority members. The report also recommends the removal of all housing authority staff except new manager Tia Ingram. 

The report will be discussed today (Tuesday) at the 6 p.m. BHA meeting. 

The city will contract for temporary staff until the new board takes over and hires staff or contracts with the city for staff. The current BHA board, made up of the City Council and two tenants, will continue to serve until June 30. At tonight’s meeting BHA will be asked to approve members of the new authority (selected by Mayor Tom Bates) who will take over new responsibilities July 1. 

“The problems are so numerous and pervasive that they reveal BHA’s inability to perform routine functions in conformance with federal regulations,” Albuquerque says in her report. 

HUD (the federal Housing and Urban Development eepartment) has deemed the Berkeley agency “troubled” since 2002; if the authority does not significantly improve, it could ask an agency outside Berkeley to manage the city’s low-income housing efforts. 

Reacting to the removal of 13 permanent and eight temporary staff, Section 8 tenant Patrick Kohoe told the Planet, “This may be what it takes to clean up the ‘troubled’ agency.” There are “some really hard-working employees with tremendous workloads,” Kohoe added, but there are others that no other department wants.  

The housing authority “has long been the Siberia of Berkeley’s ‘no lay-off’ policy,” he said.  

Employees won’t be laid off. “We’re looking at it as a major reshuffling,” City Manager Phil Kamlarz said in an interview Monday. Some employees may go through the city’s “progressive discipline” procedure in other departments, he said.  

Temporary employees will be hired in the interim and the new board will oversee hiring new employees. Former employees will be able to reapply for their jobs, according to a report authored by Kamlarz accompanying the city attorney’s report. 

In her report, the city attorney detailed concerns with staff: files had disappeared then reappeared, employees have “actively obstructed Ms. Ingram’s attempt to piece together missing information….”, obstructed HUD (Housing and Urban Development) oversight, and has given “extremely poor service to clients.” 

Kohoe said he has felt the impact of the agency’s problems. When he first received his section 8 voucher, he wanted to stay in the apartment he had been renting and his landlady agreed to accept the voucher. She had so much difficulty in getting a response from BHA, however, that he almost lost the apartment, he said. 

Kamlarz doesn’t place the entire blame on line staff. “Part of the problem is that we’ve had so many different managers,” he said, noting that there have been four different managers over the last four-to-five years. 

“I have concluded that the city simply cannot competently staff BHA operations and that the new board must be able to create its own staffing structure in order to attempt to address the deficiencies of the current operation….” says Kamlarz’ report. 

Another concern noted in the city attorney’s report is the management by Affordable Housing Association of the city’s 75 public housing units. “Eight public housing units have remained vacant under AHA’s management. The dates the units initially became vacant range from May 1, 2004 to Sept. 1, 2006 and they are still currently vacant,” the Albuquerque report says, also alleging that BHA had received complaints of criminal activity at the units “but has failed to take any action in response until Ms. Ingram arrived.” 

But in a phone interview Monday, Susan Friedland, AHA’s executive director, explained the problems this way: when AHA took over management of the public housing three and a half years ago, they were in poor condition and “files on tenant certification were non-existent.”  

Some of the units remained unoccupied while AHA did the rehabilitation work necessary, Friedland said. Further, she said, “We take complaints of crime seriously, responding to the neighbors and working with police.” 

Friedland said that currently there are five units that need to be rehabilitated and two vacant units, which she is unable to rent because BHA’s waiting list is not up to date. 

Friedland said AHA has decided not to renew their contract with BHA to manage the units at the end of June.  

While Housing Director Steve Barton generally authors BHA reports, his name is conspicuously absent from the city manager and city attorney’s May 22 BHA reports. Barton said he was unaware, until recently, of some of the problems, such as the rental of the units to dead people. 

He said he has been aware of poor service on the part of employees, and while he could not be specific, he said employees have been disciplined. 

Barton also faulted the city for cutting staff at the BHA. “It was the wrong thing to do,” he said.  

Further Barton defended AHA’s record, saying the nonprofit has done a good job, stepping in when the city could find no other agency to manage the public housing units. The slow pace of rehab work there was due to the city’s “elaborate” contracting procedures, Barton said, adding that the problem is that “they don’t own and control the [public housing] units.” 

The housing authority will meet at the Maudelle Shirek Building, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way at 6 p.m. today (Tuesday) after the workshop on the city’s health and before the council meeting.