New Housing Authority Accepts City Manager’s Plan

By Judith Scherr
Friday June 15, 2007

Heralded as a clean break with an inglorious past, a new board took the reins Tuesday of the “troubled” Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) and began immediately to plan to govern the 1,800 federally-funded Section 8 apartments and 75 units of public housing.  

The new body will be semi-autonomous. The City Council plus two tenants, which made up the old board, rarely spent more than an hour per month—often much less—on BHA business and willingly relinquished its authority in the hope that changes would convince the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) not to put the agency into receivership. 

But some charge that other changes were made with a sledgehammer. The city manager and/or the city attorney determined, as written in a May 22 report signed by City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque, that all of the BHA staff should be laid off because they were responsible for numerous errors, including renting to dead tenants.  

(Attorneys at the Community Law Center have since told the Planet they believe “dead tenant” cases can be explained as family members continuing to live in apartments where the deceased was the tenant of record. The Daily Planet is attempting to look into this issue independently, to determine whether misreporting was the fault of the landlord, the tenant or the BHA worker, but has been unable to obtain the relevant documentation because Albuquerque has denied the paper’s Public Records Act request.) 

The housing authority “has been butchered,” Section 8 tenant David Collins told the council/BHA board, during a public comment period. “It’s criminal what you have done,” he said, referring to the laid-off workers. 

Albuquerque’s critique did not spare management. In a scathing June 6 memo she faulted City Manager Phil Kamlarz, who served as BHA executive director, Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna, former Housing Director Steve Barton—forced to resign June 5—an unnamed acting housing manager, and nonprofit Affordable Housing Associates for the agency’s “troubled” status. 


New body linked to city 

The new body will maintain close links to the city government. The board was chosen by Mayor Tom Bates and includes the same two tenants who served on the former board. The plan to guide the transition from the council to the new board was written by City Manager Kamlarz. New Executive Director Tia Ingram is a former managerial employee with BHA and she has recently been on board for almost 11 months as acting BHA director/assistant to the city manager. Her monthly salary will range from $8,100 to $10,700 plus about 50 percent benefits. 

Kamlarz said he would continue to advise and support the agency, which will depend on some city services such as payroll and personnel. 

While Albuquerque sat with the new board and gave them counsel Tuesday, moving around the table to whisper into BHA manager Tia Ingram’s ear once or twice, Kamlarz said she would not be advising the new board after July 1. 

Neither will she be continuing the investigation into missteps at the housing authority, leaving that function to a HUD investigator, he said. 

“How is this board going to get accurate legal advice instantaneously?” asked Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the only councilmember to vote against the city manager/city attorney’s transition plan. Worthington said he did not support blanket staff layoffs or the forced resignation of the housing director. 

In a phone interview Wednesday, Kamlarz said the housing authority director for Monterey County, Jim Nakishima, who volunteered to help for a few days with reorganization efforts, has recommended an outside attorney.  

A council investigation into the agency will be formally proposed in the next few weeks by Councilmembers Gordon Wozniak and Worthington. Kamlarz said such investigation should take place only after the 120-day transition period has concluded. 

Now “we don’t want another group of people in there,” Kamlarz said Wednesday. “Our first priority is to get the housing authority on track.” Responding to a question, he said correcting any errors that may have been in preliminary reports would be “down the road.”  

Moving On 

After the City Council approved the transition plan, City Clerk Pamyla Means swore in the new board, which immediately began work, with Carole Norris, appointed by Bates as chair, nominating Melissa Male as vice chair. Norris has 20 years professional experience working in affordable housing and Male works for Bates’ wife, Assemblymember and former Berkeley mayor Loni Hancock, in constituent services.  

The most important item on the new board’s plate was approving the transition plan. Part of that plan was accepting an infusion of some $950,000 from the city. 

“Some of the items have conditionals attached,” said Adolph Moody, one of the tenant members of the board, referring to the fact that in order to get the $950,000 the board was required to accept conditions imposed by the city manager. 

Albuquerque counseled the board to adopt the plan. “The City Council in prior action extended the subsidy on the condition that you agree [with the transition plan],” she said. 

Accepting the funding was part of the plan; accepting the plan was conditioned on accepting the money. 

“If we don’t accept it, there’s no money,” said Michael McBride, a pastor and student services coordinator at the city’s alternative high school.  

“This was put together with a lot of thought,” Kamlarz said. 

Moody abstained and the six others, Norris, Male, McBride, former city manager Wise Allen, Department of Justice attorney Marjorie Cox and tenant representative Dorothy Hunt voted to approve it. 

At the beginning of the meeting, citizens had lined up to address the board and council, some making suggestions for the transition, others decrying the forced resignation last week of former Housing Director Stephen Barton. 


Public speaks out 

Speaking for BASTA, Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes, Marie Bowman called on the board to turn BHA over to Alameda County to save money on administration. 

The BHA administration is funded as part of the overall HUD grant, most of which goes to Section 8 landlords to subsidize market rents. Funds available for administration have declined over the years.  

Tenants told the board they fear the Housing Authority of Alameda County taking over the agency because they could be told to use their housing vouchers outside of Berkeley. 

Service Employees International Union 1021 Field Team Supervisor Andre Spearman is working to see that laid-off BHA employees, who will be offered vacant jobs in the city, are treated according to union rules. The problems with HUD go far beyond Berkeley, he said, adding, “We need to be talking to [Rep.] Barbara Lee.”  

Marcia Levenson, a former Section 8 tenant, called on the body to have the Housing Authority of Alameda County, rather than costly consultants, run the Berkeley agency. This would be different from the agency taking over BHA as BASTA had suggested.  

In this scenario, some county housing authority workers would be stationed in Berkeley. “That would preserve the current 1,800 vouchers of tenants we have in Berkeley,” she said. 

And Levenson called for “a full investigation of what led to the resignation of Steve Barton.” 

Housing Advisory Commissioner Steve Wollmer, speaking on his own behalf, said: “As a city we have lost a valuable advocate for affordable housing,” he said. “Steve [Barton] led not only with his mind, but with his heart.” 

“Steve Barton was an ethical public servant, a true partner in affordable housing projects,” added Susan Friedland, executive director of Affordable Housing Associates. Friedland strongly criticized the June 6 city attorney memo that disparaged the quality of AHA’s management of the public housing units.  

In a four-page letter to the City Council, Friedland said the attorney “conflates two distinct issues—maintenance and capital improvements” and quoted from the agreement her organization works under, which says: “Routine maintenance services do not include capital improvements.” 

AHA has detailed records of all the maintenance work performed for the housing authority, said Friedland, noting that “AHA has not once been contacted by the city attorney to give our input or answer questions regarding these complicated issues.” 


Photograph by Judith Scherr 

Housing Authority Board is sworn in: left to right Wise Allen, Michael McBride, Adolph Moody, Marjorie Cox, Dorothy Hunt and Melissa Male. The new Chair Carole Norris is not pictured.