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City Housing Authority Throws Out Waiting List

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday August 24, 2007

Angel Bertha Elzy has been waiting for a house since 1983.  

On Wednesday Elzy’s hopes were shattered when the Berkeley Housing Authority voted to erase the existing low-income public housing waiting list and start afresh. 

The lists, said housing authority executive director Tia Ingram, were inaccurate. The housing authority wiped clean as many as 5,000 names on the affordable housing waiting list and has asked everyone to apply again to determine whether they are eligible. 

“We struggled a lot about what to do with this list,” Ingram told the board during Wednesday’s public meeting. “In November we attempted to salvage some people on that list. Our effort was not successful. Do we have accurate information in any of our reports? I don’t know. What’s a fair, clean way to do it? I don’t know. Anything short of a new list is riddled with challenges from the past.” 

Rocked by a recent scandal that led to the resignation of former Housing Department Director Steve Barton and the formation of a new governing body independent of the city, the agency called the decision to abolish the existing lists a difficult one. 

“I understand the difficulty of trying to come up with a fair way to do it,” said member Adolph Moody, who abstained from voting. “I am blessed because I live in a house. At this point I don’t have the conscience to go ahead and purge the list. It’s not because I think I have a better solution. I can’t prove anything and feel for all of you. I can’t deny anyone.” 

The board’s 5-1 vote will also allow families potentially eligible for three- and four-bedroom units five business days to get on the new low-income public housing waiting list. An independent agency hired by the agency will review the applications. 

The low-income public housing program was privately managed by Affordable Housing Associates (AHA) from September 2003 through June 2007, during which AHA was responsible for drawing families from the wait list to fill vacancies. 

After AHA’s contract was terminated in June, the Berkeley Housing Authority took over this responsibility. While preparing to fill five vacant units, agency staff stumbled across a multitude of inaccuracies and decided to purge the list. 

“We learned that there were three different versions of the wait list,” Ingram’s report to the agency stated. “The active list that had been used by AHA for the preceding four years and two separate and distinct wait lists that were being retained by two BHA staff members.” 

The report further states that after studying each of the internal waiting lists and consulting with those previously responsible for them, agency staff were unable to determine whether either of the two lists were “the” list or whether to combine both lists into one. 

The AHA list met the same fate. 

“The papers report up to 5,000 families will be taken off the wait list, but that number is at the extreme high end,” Ingram said. 

According to Ingram’s report, the largest list dated back to 1999 and contained over 5000 applicants, including those that only qualified for one- or two-bedroom assistance. 

“These applicants should have been removed from the list because they did not qualify for placement on the wait list for three- and four-bedroom units.” 

Staff’s proposal to abolish the existing waiting list and create a new one was approved by both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Stephen Schneller, Director of Public Housing.  

However, a number of people at the meeting vociferously opposed the move. 

“I think it’s horrible,” Elzy said as she broke down into tears. “They have been taking me through hell. I applied in the early ’80s and then they made me reapply again in 2000. And I am still waiting. I am living on and off in Berkeley and Oakland. I am practically homeless. I am devastated by the news.” 

Lorin Cook, a diabetic, demanded the reason for being dropped over the years to number 934 when at one time she was number 108 on the waiting list. 

“People need to have proof,” she told boardmembers. “What is the excuse for this?” 

Rent Board commissioner Jesse Arreguin called the decision drastic. 

“It will have serious implications for tenants in Berkeley,” he said. “How are you going to process the new applicants? I am not sure you have the capacity to do so.” 

“The lists are invalid and the only solution is to start all over again,” said commissioner Allen. “It’s important to create a system to prevent this from happening again.” 

“What could be done to ensure that this does not happen again?” asked commissioner Marjorie Cox. 

Ingram said that the new list would be static and password protected and it would form the baseline for the future. 

“We would also be keeping notes everyday for our knowledge,” she said. 

“It pains me to establish a new list,” said commissioner Dorothy Hunt. “But we have to start somewhere. Everybody will be affected but we can start clean.” 

Lynda Carson, founder of the group Save Berkeley Housing Authority, condemned the decision to abolish the lists. 

“It’s shocking news to all the low-income tenants who did everything they had to do to receive assistance,” she told the Planet. 

“It’s a slap in their face. A lot of people call the housing authority every day to check where they are on the list. They will have to start all over again.” 

Carson added that a lot more people would be signing up for the new list. 

“If we compare what happened in Oakland in June 2006,” she said. “Over 40 percent of Oakland’s low-income families signed up for the list. People are very desperate. These are hard times for everybody.” 


Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee. 

Angel Bertha Elzy is comforted by friends after learning her place on the low-income public housing waiting list was purged Wednesday at the Berkeley Housing Authority meeting.