Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley Housing Authority’s Plan To Dump its Waiting List

By Lynda Carson
Friday August 24, 2007

On Aug. 22, Berkeley Housing Authority board members were scheduled to vote on a resolution to terminate it’s existing housing assistance waiting list. There was little to no advance warning that this was about to occur, and it caught the housing community by surprise. 

On the surface, Berkeley’s plan to terminate it’s current housing assistance waiting list appears to be little more than a political statement claiming that things are better, when in reality this plan does not seem to be a real solution to the past problems in the agency. 

The plan to dump over 5,000 people from the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) waiting list is a slap in the face to all of the elderly, poor and disabled families who have done everything right to get on the list, and stay on the list. 

Worse yet, it appears that the newly installed board members of the BHA have not come up with a viable plan or proposal that would guarentee that a new waiting list would be properly maintained in the future. Destroying the BHA’s housing assistance waiting lists does nothing to resolve the present crisis for those needing assistance, and only makes the present scandal worse because destroying the current waiting list precisely hurts those that it was meant to assist. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) may establish local preferences for selecting applicants from its waiting list. As an example, PHAs may give a preference to a family who is homeless or living in substandard housing. Or for those who are paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent, or have been involuntarily displaced. Families who qualify for any such local preferences move ahead of other families on the list who do not qualify for any preference. Each PHA has the discretion to establish local preferences to reflect the housing needs and priorities of its particular community.” 

Preferences mean that people are being bumped out of line all the time in housing authorities all across the nation for various reasons, and this is nothing new to those familiar with the way housing authorities are being operated. It certainly does not mean that the PHA’s waiting lists need to be destroyed or purged, and that everyone in line should be dumped from the waiting lists only to have to start all over again. 

After the Huricane Katrina disaster demolished the gulf states, housing authorities across the nation ignored their current waiting lists to give preference to disaster victims who relocated to their regions, and it created a whole new set of problems and resentment for those that were bumped out of line by Katrina’s victims. This same sort of scenario would play out in Berkeley, if a new list bumped everyone out of line, and new people were given their place. In addition HUD says, “During the application process, the PHA will collect information on family income, assets, and family composition. The PHA will verify this information with other local agencies, your employer and bank, and will use the information to determine program eligibility and the amount of the housing assistance payment. If the PHA determines that your family is eligible, the PHA will put your name on a waiting list, unless it is able to assist you immediately.” 

Whether the waiting lists in Berkeley have been properly maintained or not through the years, as long as the current people on the waiting lists meet the eligibility requirements for housing assistance, and no one improperly bumps them up in line ahead of others, there should be no problems and the current waiting lists could easily be updated if necessary when openings occur. 

Currently the BHA website says, “The BHA is not currently processing applications from the wait list for new vouchers. This is because the BHA does not have funding available to provide new vouchers at this time. You will be contacted in writing, by mail, when your name reaches the top of the wait list and funds available for additional vouchers to be issued.” If there are no funds available for those already on the current waiting lists and the BHA is not processing applications regardless of one’s status, one can only wonder what is the point in spending tens of thousands of dollars to create a whole new waiting list... As is, thousands needing housing assistance in Berkeley have already patiently waited for as long as 8 years, and many have done everything required of them by the BHA to update their files when a change in status occurs. They should not be punished and told to go to the back of the line because of staff mismanagement in the agency. 

Since the proposed purge is not being mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), or being demanded by any other over-sight agency as a means to save the BHA, this all sounds like another political blunder and a big waste of time and money during a very crucial period for the BHA’s scarce resources, and needy clients. 

People should keep in mind that when the Oakland Housing Authority last opened up their waiting list during January of 2006, an astounding 40 percent of Oakland’s low-income families filed applications for housing assistance. 

If the BHA purged their current waiting lists and started taking new applications over the proposed five-day application period, they can expect way more than 5,000 low-income families to fill out applications for the new waiting list. When considering that it would take (new) BHA staff members a minimum of 15 minutes or more to prepare a new file for each client that just signed up for the new waiting list, this dubious venture may easily end up costing around $75,000 or more before the dust settles. 

Creating a new waiting list for the BHA would only guarentee that everyone on the current list has to start all over at the back of the line. It would be cost prohibitive, and it is not a guarenteed solution to problems of incompetence or mismanagement that has plagued this much needed agency through the years. The City of Berkeley needs to respect those who are already on the BHA’s waiting lists, and stop wasting precious resources for political reasons that do not offer solutions. 


Lynda Carson is one of the founding members of Save Berkeley Housing Authority.