Berkeley is set to lose its public housing, and depending on whom you talk to in the city, that may or may not be such a bad thing.
The Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA), which has been operating independently of the City of Berkeley since July 2007, approved the sale of 61 units of federal housing scattered around the city to a private developer so that BHA can focus on its Section 8 voucher program.
It is also expected to sell off all 14 units of state-funded public housing, according to BHA Executive Director Tia Ingram. Ingram said the housing authority’s decision was necessary to bring all public housing units up to current market-rental standards.
However, the agency, which has been in “troubled” status since 2005 under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual review due to poor management, oversight and vacancy rates, will be handing over its public-housing program to a for-profit or non-profit entity on the condition that the rental units remain affordable for years to come.
Although BHA has promised current public-housing tenants relocation through Section 8 vouchers, and maybe even a chance to return to their apartments if found eligible, not everyone is ready to trust the system.
“Poor people need a place to live even if they don’t have any income,” said local housing advocate Lynda Carson. “It’s a bad idea to dispose off public housing. Non-profit housing discriminates against the poor because it requires you to have a minimum income. There’s no way, no assurance that these people will be able to come back. It’s entirely up to them to decide.”
Ingram said it is natural for tenants to feel hurt, angry and displaced.
“Not everyone will be able to come back,” she acknowledged. “These are the empty nesters—single moms who are living in a four-bedroom unit, a husband and wife who are living in a three-bedroom unit. I know they love that place because they have lived there for 20 years, because their dry cleaner is right down the street, because they have decorated their place like their own. ... But let’s face it, there’s another family out there who needs that space.”
Ingram said that relocation experts would help tenants find the right housing, “whether it be in Oakland or Texas or Puerto Rico.”
“We will help them negotiate with their landlords, clean up credit card issues and put them in a car and drive them to the apartment if necessary,” she said. “It’s not like we are asking you to put everything in a box right now—the sale won’t happen at least for the next 16 to 18 months.”
Carson argued that the buildings were not in as bad a shape as BHA made them out to be.
“Then why didn’t they just demolish them?” she asked, arguing that BHA was giving more importance to its Section 8 voucher program instead of public housing because it brought in more money. “They are spending a fortune on consultants when they could be using that money to do repairs.”
“Time has run out,” Ingram said. She said that as a “troubled” housing authority, BHA had been given a Dec. 31, 2009, deadline by HUD to either create a plan to fix its public housing or get out of it entirely.
Ironically, the housing authority learned in November that HUD might finally allow BHA to shed its troubled status. HUD is scheduled to release that report by mid-January.
Ingram said the BHA board had been at wits end figuring out how to come up with the estimated $6 million required to carry out extensive repairs on all its housing units.
Running at a loss of $150,000 annually, Ingram said BHA was in a precarious position because of HUD’s limited funding.
“We needed to be able to provide quality funding,” Ingram said. “We need to put some modern amenities in those buildings—so we wondered whether we could go to the bank or whether the city could pluck some money off its back yard. We realized we just wanted to get out of HUD’s bureaucracy.”
Ingram said that depending on the right fit, BHA was also ready to sell off the units to the residents themselves.
She said that contrary to the complaints of dissidents, BHA was not conspiring to give up its public housing to make more money.
“It’s not like the developer will be converting them into condos or anything,” she said.
“I think it’s good that efforts are finally being made to address problems at BHA,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, one of two City Council representatives on the housing authority. “I don’t want people to be kicked out of their homes, but there is a shortage of affordable housing in Berkeley. There will be some displacement, but it’s good that they are coming up with a clear plan. It’s a trade-off.”
Carson blamed BHA’s long history of failure to maintain and manage the buildings properly on the current state of its public housing.
Rose Flappin, who has lived in public housing in South Berkeley with her family for the last decade, said she worries that BHA’s decision would force families into homelessness.
“Forcing us out is their way of solving their problem,” she said. “They get enough money to manage it, they just don’t get the right people to manage it.”
Flappin pointed to rat infestation problems in Berkeley public housing a few years ago which she said BHA had dealt with incompetently.
“We are trying to focus on the future without looking at the past,” said Ingram. “We have had a less than perfect history, but this is a chance to change that.”
Keith Carlisle, a public-housing tenant who has lived in Berkeley since 1996, said he feels that BHA is abandoning public housing because no one cares about it anymore.
“People who fought for public housing, such as Dona Spring and Maudelle Shirek, are gone now, so there is no opposition,” he said. “There is a blight attached to public housing, so they want to move poor people out of the city. We’ve been shown the door without having any kind of self-sufficiency program to save money to buy a house or improve our lives.”
Berkeley Councilmember Dona Spring died last year and former Berkeley Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek is retired.
Carlisle also expressed frustrations and a reluctance to trust BHA.
“They promise us all kinds of pie in the sky and they never do it,” he said. “That’s why we want to share in the managerial responsibilities.”
In a letter to Stephen Schneller, director of HUD’s regional office in San Francisco, more than 20 Berkeley public-housing tenants wrote that their non-profit, Residents Awareness in Action, wanted to take over the operation of the housing units themselves.
Carlisle is also leading an effort to save public housing in Berkeley by holding community meetings every Saturday.
The BHA board will be meeting Friday afternoon at the South Berkeley Senior Center to create a planning committee, comprised of legal advocates, housing advocates and residents who will decide on the terms of the contract and next steps.
“Do we want resident training programs, do we want a community center?—we want to know from residents what they want to see during the redevelopment,” Ingram said. “We don’t want to shut them out, we want to bring everyone to the table.”
A special meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 8 at the South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis St.