A Reader’s Guide to the Housing Maze

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday April 20, 2010 - 12:51:00 PM

When Conservatives’ attempts to eliminate HUD failed, they focused on Section 8. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments Program was established in 1974. It provides 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 associated with sheltering seniors with small incomes who are willing, able, and eager to live independently. 

If you and your landlord qualify under Section 8, you pay one third of your income for rent, with the balance subsidized by HUD. In most communities there are 2 approaches to getting a rent-subsidized Section 8 unit: tenant-based and project-based

In theory, it is possible for a low-income family to obtain a Section 8 voucher from the local housing authority, find a vacant apartment on the open market, a landlord who will accept both the tenant and a voucher/ subsidized rent, within a deadline.  

Senior citizens currently receiving Section 8 rent subsidies are at risk of losing their status and being evicted because landlords prefer other types of tenants and the open market. Market-rate rents are highest in the Bay Area. Many landlords prefer not to accept vouchered tenants and do not renew their Section 8 contracts with HUD because they can get larger rents and what they consider more “desirable tenants” on the open market.  

Vouchers can be of little use because: 

• Few vouchers may have been issued and voucher waiting lists are usually closed; 

• At times there are few vacancies, and those that can be discovered are exorbitantly high rents; 

• Seniors and disabled persons with small incomes, while able and wishing to live independently, may be unable to scour neighborhoods and deal with landlords; 

• A landlord-fostered myth portrays Section 8 tenants as undesirable.  

Another category of Section 8 beneficence is the project-basedSection 8 building for senior citizens and disabled persons, typically owned and or managed by a non-profit developer-corporation (e.g. Affordable Housing Associates, Satellite Housing, Inc.). Waiting lists that open and close unpredictably, ruthless property managers, and an annual rent recertification can be part of project life. [Request “Senior Housing Guide 2010 edition” from Alameda County Area Agency on Aging Senior Information and Assistance, 1 800 510 2020.] Section 8 project-based buildings consist of mostly single-room apartments, e.g. Stuart Pratt, Shattuck Senior Homes, and Redwood Gardens.  

Established in 1966, the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) administers approximately 1,939 subsidized rental-housing units through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher lottery program.  

The BHA works with HUD to administer a tenant-basedSection 8 program and periodically, a voucher lottery. At times the list of voucher category-priorities has varied so frequently that it was difficult to keep up—e.g. Berkeley residents, disabled, elderly, homeless, veterans, etc. etc. have been mentioned. Once a person obtains a voucher, s/he must locate a vacant apartment whose landlord will accept a Section 8 tenant and work with the BHA, whose website reads: “The Section 8 Wait List is CLOSED. For information on the status of your application to see if you were picked for the lottery, … visit www.waitlistcheck.com... your application for this waitlist does not guarantee a spot on the waitlist. It is only after the random lottery selecting 1,500 names, that the official waitlist will be established...” 

The reconstituted BHA’s seven-member Board of Commissioners consists of individuals appointed by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. There has been criticism of apparent conflict of interest; chair Carole Norris is identified as Vice President at ICF Consulting, San Francisco. The BHA receives a certain number of vouchers and has increasingly been sharing (transferring) those with developers and the City, i.e. some would say, giving them away. 

In addition to dispensing Section 8 vouchers, the BHA also owns and administers 75 units of public housing scattered throughout the city. The BHA has recently been attempting to divest itself of these “town houses.” Representatives of the City of Berkeley and Wells Fargo Bank’s Community Lending Division were also present at discussions with representatives of Satellite Housing, Inc., Resources for Community Development, Affordable Housing Associates, and John Stewart Co.  

The City of Berkeley created its Housing Trust Fund (HTF) in 1990. A housing trust fund is a program that pools funds for affordable housing construction from a variety of sources with different requirements, and makes them available through a single application process to local developers. Note: “Affordable housing” can differ radically from “low-income housing.” 

The property at 3132-35 Harper Street has become known as the Prince Hall Arms and as the Masons. The independent corporation formed by East Gate Lodge #44 F&AM and the MW Prince Hall Grand Lodge of California F&AM was described by them as senior citizen housing…under development for over 10 years, sponsored by the non-profit MW Prince Hall Arms, Inc. A lawsuit was filed in 2008 to kill the project.  

On April 15, 2010, the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission (HAC) held a Special Meeting at 4 PM to review Applications for Housing Trust Fund Request[s] for Proposals (RFP) and to make its recommendations. At 7 PM the HAC held a public hearing. In the preceding weeks, applicants encouraged endorsers’ attendance. Tenants in Satellite Housing, Inc.’s 4 Berkeley buildings noted a bulletin board announcement, “Satellite Housing needs your support at the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission Meeting!... Transportation is provided to and from the meeting. Sign up… with your resident coordinator! …Satellite Housing has a development called the ‘3135 Harper Street’ that is being considered for financial support. Attend and be a speaker who tells …how living in Satellite’s affordable senior development has been beneficial to you. Attend and let Satellite Housing, your neighbors, and fellow Satellite residents know you are there for them.”  


Helen RIpppier Wheeler has served on the Alameda County Advisory Commission on Aging, Berkeley Commission on Aging, Berkeley Housing Authority board, and North Berkeley Senior Center Advisory Council, and as a Save Section 8 founding member. She is the Planet’s SENIOR POWER columnist.