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New Housing Authority Tackles Tough Questions

By Judith Scherr
Friday July 27, 2007

Flanked by high-priced consultants tasked with bolstering a “troubled” housing authority suffering from years of neglect, and facing a new board apparently ready to work through volumes of (sometimes contradictory, some say) HUD regulations, Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) Executive Director Tia Ingram reported at the Monday BHA board meeting on the progress of the newly indepen-dent agency. 

Several Housing Authority residents were also there. The time and place of the meeting had been posted at the housing authority and at City Hall at least 24 hours before, as required by law for a “special” meeting—one not held on a regularly scheduled night.  

They had come to tell the BHA board and staff about problems they face as housing authority clients. One woman spoke about lax management at the apartment building she lives in, where drug dealers are free to ply their trade, and another complained about problematic personal questions she was asked by a worker recertifying her subsidized housing eligibility. 

Rose Flippia, president of the Council of Residents in Public Housing, asked the board to visit the public housing units. “Come out and assess the property—really look at the issues and the way people are living,” she said. “It’s only fair; we’ve been suffering for the last four years. A lot of residents have lost confidence in management.” 

Carole Norris, chair of the newly constituted board, promised the residents that staff would follow up on issues raised. 

BHA, which subsidizes some 1,800 units of federally-subsidized privately-owned Section 8 units and 75 BHA-owned public housing units, was placed on “troubled” status by the Housing and Urban Development Department and has gone through a recent shake-up aimed at avoiding the agency’s being placed in receivership.  

The City Council plus two tenants, which had served as the board overseeing the agency, typically spent less than an hour per month tackling BHA issues, and voluntarily gave up its role as the housing authority board in favor of a new seven-member panel appointed by the mayor. 

As part of the overhaul, and after a stinging city attorney report blaming staff for BHA problems, the city manager announced that all BHA staff except manager Tia Ingram would be laid off at the end of June.  

The eight union members were able to apply for their old jobs. At least two former BHA employees are now working at BHA. Others, according to a confidential source, were asked to return, but opted to work elsewhere in the city. 

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque’s widely-publicized condemnation of BHA staff included charges of inaccurately determining eligibility, failing to obtain verification for live-in aides or income, paying rent where occupants were deceased and blocking the manager’s attempts to solve problems.  

Workers responded in anger, lining up at a City Council meeting in June to say they were scapegoated for problems that included inadequate staffing, lack of training and a faulty computer system. Tenant advocates have told the Daily Planet that shocking headlines about BHA renting to dead tenants can be explained by the units’ being occupied by a dead person’s spouse or dependents. 

The city attorney has denied the Daily Planet’s Freedom of Information request for the list of landlords of supposedly deceased tenants; the new BHA staff is considering the resubmitted request. 

In other personnel shifts, Steve Barton, the city’s housing director—popular among the city’s low-income housing advocates—responsible for BHA as well as three other divisions in the housing department, was forced to resign. Consultants specializing in “saving” troubled housing authorities, were hired. In order to fund these efforts, the city has transferred $1 million from its general fund to the agency.  

Panos Kyrpianou of Cleveland-based CGI started work in June on a $20,000 contract for that month. The contract has been increased to about $50,000/month, beginning in July, to include four members of the CGI staff and running for three months, Kyrpianou told the Daily Planet. 

Eugene Jones, an independent specialist in HUD finances, has also been hired on a temporary contract to assist the executive director. BHA did not make information on his contract available to the Daily Planet. 

The centerpiece of the board’s Monday meeting was Ingram’s report on the agency’s corrective work. 

Problems include issues of “overhoused” people, such as “empty nesters” who once had a right to an apartment with more bedrooms than they currently need. There is an attempt in some cases to get the landlords to voluntarily reduce the rent on these units.  

The agency has uncovered some overpayment. “Some of the payments that went to landlords seem to be questionable—five figure payments that were significant. We have not found the paperwork to support those transactions,” Ingram told the board. 

“Where there are overpayments we’ve held landlords accountable in terms of collection efforts,” she said, noting that names of workers responsible for the transactions would be forwarded to the city manager and to the HUD inspector. 

Ingram addressed computer issues, noting the CGI consultant confirmed that BHA’s computer system “does not meet our needs as it is currently configured.” 

She also addressed staff issues, saying, “Some of them did a stellar job in terms of stepping up and transitioning [to new jobs with the city], leaving information on where we can find certain things.” Other staff made it difficult to find various pieces of information, she told the board. 

While the city attorney had painted a grim picture of the BHA staff in her May 22 report, Ingram has expressed a more positive view. In a June 6 email to the old BHA staff—sent to the Daily Planet by a person who asked for anonymity—Ingram wrote: “In spite of the fact that I continue to learn about existing problems … I continue to defend YOU … reiterating that I do not believe any BHA staff member is a criminal, or that any of the actions taken (or not taken) were with the intent of some personal gain. I have shared this with the press and with the various city officials—you can quote me on it if you like.” 

At Monday’s meeting, Ingram publicly complimented staff rehired by the agency, saying: “It’s important to recognize those who have labored long in the Housing Authority and demonstrated that we are true public servants.” 

After the scathing reports by the city attorney of May 22 and June 6, City Manager Phil Kamlarz—then the executive director of the agency and also faulted by the city attorney for his role in housing authority problems—announced that the HUD inspector general’s (IG) office would be coming to the city to do a thorough investigation of the concerns alleged by the city attorney. 

However, Ingram said Monday that an investigation has yet to be done. 

“There’s been a lot of talk about the investigation and some of the issues that we identified,” Ingram told the board. “The IG’s office has come out for an initial visit for about half a day. We’ve continued to identify issues; that information has been provided to the investigator who is scheduled to come back in August to resume his research.” 

Ingram praised the consultants’ work. CGI is half way through a complete audit of the computer and hard-copy files for the 140 people up for recertification in September, she said, noting that when the 140 people have been audited, that will be almost 10 percent of the Section 8 voucher holders.  

She also told the board she was proud of the staff’s success at two informal hearings “where both our proposed terminations were upheld.” She added, “It was refreshing to see that staff could really do a better job in servicing our clients.”  

Ingram addressed the importance of being on good terms with HUD. “The last six to nine months we’ve really enjoyed positive relations with HUD,” she said, noting that the regional director has been willing to grant BHA waivers, move deadlines and lend their staff to help. 

In other board business, interim BHA attorney Cheryl Carlson promised she was “not going to bore you to tears” in her review of the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting laws, and gave a five-minute overview, cautioning the board to conduct business in public and to address only items properly placed on the agenda. 

Some of the information presented in acronyms by Ingram and the consultants was difficult for board members to grasp—they will hold trainings to become familiar with the volumes of HUD rules. Board member Marjorie Cox called on fellow members to hold two regular meetings per month, to get up to speed. “I don’t want to provide inadequate oversight,” she said. 

Board member Wise Allen, however, said that more meetings means that the staff spends too much time preparing for the sessions. 

“You’ve got to give staff time to do their jobs,” he said. “Our work is policy. We’re not micromanaging.” 

The next meeting is tentatively set for Aug. 22 at 6 p.m. at the South Berkeley Senior Center.