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City Housing Workers Fight Back

By Judith Scherr
Friday May 25, 2007

Skewered in a city attorney’s report for incompetencies such as housing dead people in low-income apartments and obstructing investigations, Berkeley Housing Authority workers fought back at Tuesday’s BHA meeting, where the City Council approved the city manager’s recommendation to eliminate the positions of all BHA workers except the manager.  

Housing authority workers sporting purple union shirts lined up at the public microphone to address the BHA board—the City Council plus two tenants—that oversees the city’s 1,800 low income housing units. 

Saying they were being scapegoated for longstanding managerial problems, workers blasted city manager and city attorney reports that alleged workers had obstructed BHA Manager Tia Ingram’s efforts to investigate problems and had given “extremely poor service to clients.”  

The employees attacked City Manager Phil Kamlarz’ proposal to fix the BHA problems by “cleaning house,” abolishing the 13 permanent and eight temporary housing authority positions at the end of June.  

Under the city manager’s plan, Ingram will stay on, working beginning in June with an outside agency with which BHA will contract for managerial services. 

A divided council approved 5-2-2 the recommendation to end the positions and a companion recommendation to contract out for managerial help during the month of June.  

Tuesday’s meeting was a joint session between the City Council and the Berkeley Housing Authority board. Only the City Council participated in the vote to eliminate positions and contract for staff. 

Calling the wholesale employee cuts “a meat axe” approach, Councilmember Kriss Worthington joined Mayor Tom Bates in voting against cutting the positions and contracting out for services; Councilmembers Max Anderson and Darryl Moore abstained on both measures. 

The 13 permanent BHA workers will receive 30-day layoff notices, be placed in vacant city positions and have the right to reapply for their jobs, the city manager said.  

Worthington blasted the staff reports as “unprofessional” and commented, “It doesn’t tell us what alternatives were considered.” 

Councilmember Max Anderson agreed. “We need to look at real options—we can’t do it at the meeting tonight. I wish this thing had been discussed more openly with the union and with us.” 

Tilda Barnes has worked for the BHA for two and one-half years under three different managers and addressed the BHA Tuesday night. 

“When I saw the [newspaper] articles, I fell apart,” she said. “I take this work seriously.”  

Several other workers stood before the BHA board and talked about computer problems, lack of training and heavy caseloads. They blasted the city manager’s proposal to turn the BHA over to a private agency for a few months—“contracting out” public sector work—while keeping Ingram who has been with BHA for nine months.  

In addition to eliminating staff positions, the council approved a contract with Montreal-based CGI, Inc., known by its initials, for one position to help Ingram develop interim and permanent staffing models. An initial $20,000 contract will run through the month of June. When a new BHA board takes over in July, it can opt to continue the contract.  

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021 officials told the Planet Wednesday they are seeking legal advice regarding the council action, as they believe it may have violated workers’ contracts. City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque argued at the meeting Tuesday that terminating the positions is legal, given that employees will be offered other jobs. The city has a “no lay-off” policy. 

But SEIU 1021 Field Team Supervisor Andre Spearman told the Planet on Wednesday, “You can’t put it all on the workers.” 

When he addressed the BHA at the Tuesday meeting, Spearman pointed to the landlords said to have 15 apartments rented to deceased persons. “Let’s talk about the dead people,” Spearman said. “HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] guideines obligate landlords to certify the tenants who live there.” HUD pays Berkeley landlords about $25 million each year for Section 8 rents, according to the housing authority web site. 

The Daily Planet has made a Public Records Request, asking for relevant landlord information. 

Berkeley’s housing authority, which oversees some 1,800 units of federally subsidized Section 8 housing and 75 units of public housing, was designated as “troubled” in 2002 by HUD. BHA has been unable to improve to HUD’s satisfaction to get the designation removed. The city is in danger of losing local control of the department, according to city staff. 

Restructuring the governing board is part of the effort to manage BHA more efficiently. In a separate unanimous vote Tuesday, the City Council confirmed the nomination of six members to a new seven-member board appointed by the mayor. The new board will officially begin work July 1, although it will meet with the City Council beginning June 12.  

“We all bear some responsibility,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, of the council role in overseeing the troubled agency.  

Worthington agreed, pointing to the short BHA meetings shoehorned in before the council meeting. “[Meeting] five-to-10 minutes a month is not a reasonable way to supervise the housing authority,” he said. 

Albuquerque sent a report detailing the problems to the HUD Inspector General in Washington D.C. HUD spokesperson Michael Zerega said he received the report, but would not comment at that time and could not comment on whether he would speak to the report in the future.