Public Comment

Berkeley Low-Income Rental Housing Not Necessarily Affordable

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:07:00 AM

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments Program was established in 1974. It provides project-based and tenant-based housing assistance to low-income persons who rent. It has been one of the best possible uses of federal funds, because it countermands need for costly welfare-type expenditures. For example, sheltering seniors and persons with “certain disabilities” with low incomes who are willing, able, and eager to live independently. (Most low-income seniors are not frail and do not need costly “assisted living.”) When you and your landlord qualify under Section 8 for tenant-based housing assistance, you pay one third of your income for rent, and the balance subsidized. 

Make no mistake: “affordable housing” is not “low-income” housing. When conservatives’ attempted to eliminate HUD failed, they focused on Section 8. 

In theory, it is also possible for a low-income person or family to obtain a Section 8 voucher from the local housing authority—the Berkeley Housing Authority (now sometimes referred to as the Reconstituted BHA)—and then find a vacant apartment on the open market owned by a landlord who will accept subsidized rent, all within the brief period allocated by the BHA. A voucher issued by the local housing authority says that HUD will pay part of the rent if the person seeking housing is lucky enough to find a vacancy independently and the landlord will accept a voucher. 

For 20 years the BHA was neglected by the Berkeley City Council—it had become the dumping ground for troublesome city employees. BHA meetings were allocated a few minutes before City Council meetings. Established on Dec. 20, 1966, the Berkeley Housing Authority administers approximately 1,939 subsidized rental-housing units through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program and the Moderate Rehabilitation SRO program. The Berkeley Housing Authority also owns and manages 61 units of public housing. 

In 2000 the city attorney advised the Housing Department Director that the governing board of a Housing Authority within a city may be constituted in only one of three ways under state law. The city chose the second option, which “consisted of the mayor appointing five commissioners whose appointment must be confirmed by the City Council and two tenant commissioners, one of whom must be over the age of 62.” 

The city website declares that “The Berkeley Housing Authority is not part of the City of Berkeley.” Since 2006, when the City Council reconstituted the BHA as a mostly-separate agency, it has had some success in resolving some of its chronic problems. But it was set it up to fail economically because its employees must be paid expensive City of Berkeley salaries. The BHA’s financial situation has been further compromised by HUD’s cutting funding for Public Housing (administered in Berkeley by the BHA). 

Landlords prefer not to accept vouchered tenants and are not renewing their Section 8 contracts with HUD because they can get larger rents and what they consider “desirable tenants” on the “open market” where the demand greatly exceeds the supply. Market-rate rents are highest in Bay Area California. If the BHA cuts back staff next year, customer service will be so poor that landlords will likely opt out of the Section 8 program—as they have done in the past because it was a hassle. Section 8 tenants—many of whom are disabled and or aged—may have to pay more than one third of their income for rent because the BHA will not be able to keep the payment standard (the amount the landlord receives for rent) competitive with Berkeley rents. 

If the City Council does not provide an ongoing financial subsidy to the BHA and the BHA goes out of existence, the BHA’s Section 8 rental vouchers will likely be turned over to the Alameda County Housing Authority, whose payment standards (the maximum rent paid to landlords) have historically tended to be less than those of the BHA. The result will be that low-income, elderly and disabled tenants will no longer be able to afford to live in Berkeley and the vouchers will be dispersed into other communities and unincorporated areas of the county. Section 8 individuals and families who choose to remain living in Berkeley will be paying well over one third of their income toward rent. 

By the time the Ed Roberts Campus independent living center (which does not provide housing per se) opens next year, disabled tenants will no longer be able to afford to live in Berkeley if the BHA does not receive such a subsidy. The BHA brings in annual revenue to the City of Berkeley through its housing programs. Keeping the reconstituted housing authority in Berkeley makes economic sense and helps preserve the fabric of the community. But low-income individuals and families are going to have to fight to keep Berkeley’s Payment Standard competitive with rents in a college town. 

The problem is mainly a staffing one. Lacking a sufficient City of Berkeley subsidy, the BHA will be forced next year to cut back case managers and clerical support staff who provide direct services. The main reason a subsidy is needed to sustain the BHA at this time is salaries—union salaries and benefits comparable to those paid by the City of Berkeley, stipulated by the City two years ago when the BHA became a mostly-separate agency. Any recent improvements in BHA customer service for Section 8 tenants and landlords will be lost. Landlords will no longer participate in the program if phone calls are not returned and their rental leases, housing inspection documents, and subsidy checks are not processed in timely fashion. 

The best way to retain the BHA staff is to provide public comment supporting a subsidy. This should be done at meetings of the City Council and to inform your Councilmember. If low-income tenants do not attend and show themselves, real estate developers and landlords who oppose “affordable housing” in Berkeley will be the only people present when the City Council votes on low-income housing issues. 

The potential for the BHA to become a self-supporting agency exists, if it can emerge from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Troubled Status in January 2010. Its HUD administrative reporting requirements would be substantially less, and it would receive more funding for its programs. 

Section 8 tenants live in constant fear of their landlord opting out of their Section 8 contract—they can, and they have! Note: There is no “Just Cause” eviction for Section 8 tenants in Berkeley. In practical terms, opting out is an eviction. Tenants fear that if they complain, the landlord will opt out. Section 8 tenants frequently don’t have : Thousands of collers up-front cash that would enable them to move; money for first month’s rent, last month’s rent, deposit, moving costs; good credit; transportation to see the few apartments that accept Section 8; time in which one can apartment-hunt, because the Housing Authority limits the amount of time one can search for an apartment before you lose your voucher. 

Adequate funding of a subsidy for the BHA is consistent with the City of Berkeley’s long standing commitment to “affordable housing.” In order to function, the BHA needs a subsidy from the City of Berkeley adequate to sustain itself. 


Helen Rippier Wheeler is a former BHA board member and founding member of Save Section 8.