BHA in Chaos 

Berkeley Officials are scrambling to turn things around, but it could be too late. as the Housing Authority is on the verge of collapse

Thirteen years ago, the city of Berkeley proudly opened the doors to ten new small public housing projects throughout the city. They didn't look anything like the notorious high-rise public housing projects on the East Coast. Most of them contained only a handful of apartments and were painted in pastel hues.

The 61 low-income housing units exemplified the latest in progressive urban planning: scattered-site public housing that would fit neatly into surrounding neighborhoods. Even so, neighbors weren't thrilled about the new additions on their blocks. During the planning phase, prospective neighbors regularly came to City Council meetings and expressed fear that the projects would bring traffic and crime with them. They also worried about how well city government would manage the properties given the poor track record of other cities. But the City Council majority, led by members of Berkeley Citizens Action, gave the go-ahead to build the projects anyway, and disgruntled neighborhood leaders schemed to get back at BCA. They did so by putting Measure C on the June 1986 ballot, which eliminated citywide elections for the City Council in favor of district elections.

Measure C's victory led to the demise of BCA-style slate politics in Berkeley, but it was too late to stop construction of the planned public housing projects. Though they had paid a dear price, progressive pols still held high hopes that in spite of the political rancor, the new low-income projects would become a model for public housing in the nation.

Unfortunately, building the housing was only part of the equation. There was also the little matter of managing them. That responsibility ultimately fell into the hands of the Berkeley Housing Authority, an agency that the city's housing director describes as being on the verge of collapse.

Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development now describe the condition of the 61 units built in 1988 as "substandard physical." They go on to describe the authority's management and maintenance of its public housing as "unsatisfactory and inefficient." Units urgently in need of repairs show no record of any repairs being ordered or completed for years. And, public housing residents say, some units have gone vacant as long as six months because of poor management.

Amazingly, the deteriorating condition of its public housing is not even the housing authority's biggest problem right now. Even more urgent is the fact that landlords are dropping out of the BHA-run federal Section 8 program -- in which the feds typically pay seventy percent of a low-income tenant's rent in the private housing market -- causing the authority's budget to run more than $250,000 in the red the past two consecutive years. While HUD has authorized Berkeley to hand out 1,840 Section 8 vouchers, the housing authority managed to lease only 1,266 units through May.

Federal officials have given the Berkeley Housing Authority until April 2002 to get its act together. If the housing authority still hasn't issued enough vouchers -- at least another 300, city officials estimate -- HUD officials threaten to slash Berkeley's Section 8 budget, meaning hundreds of eligible poor Berkeley tenants won't be able to get financial help. (The feds fined the city $54,000 last year for not assigning enough vouchers.) It could also mean an end to the Berkeley Housing Authority. Faced with all of this bad news, city officials are scrambling to turn things around at the housing authority in the next few months. But after years of neglect and bureaucratic ineptitude, it could very well be too late.

Only a few weeks after becoming the Berkeley Housing Authority's manager, Rick Mattessich got a sternly worded letter from Joyce Lee, the director of HUD's office of public housing. Based on a review earlier in the year, Lee wrote in her June 15 missive, HUD officials had determined: the authority's housing inspectors were passing units that didn't meet federal health quality standards; inspectors weren't making follow-up visits to apartments that had previously failed their inspections; poor record-keeping made it almost impossible to tell if contractors really had done repairs they were being paid for; and some of the authority-owned public housing units lacked basic safety items like smoke detectors.

"In spite of the deficiencies detailed in the aforementioned reviews," Lee wrote, "on April 23, 2001, then Acting Interim Housing Manager, Sheila Maxwell, certified the adequacy of the BHA's quality of physical work, work order procedures, annual inspection of dwelling units, and systems procedures."

Lee gave Mattessich twenty days to send her office "evidence that all of our findings have since been cleared or a corrective action plan that addresses the findings contained in this report." Asked if he'll make Lee's deadline, Mattessich sighs. "I just haven't got time to respond to them," he says. "I've got other pressing business."

Though Mattessich is the authority's third interim manager within the past year, city officials are pinning their hopes on him to salvage the program. Before coming to Berkeley, he spent twelve years working for HUD including a couple of years specializing in helping troubled housing authorities.

To say the least, he has a daunting task ahead of him. He inherits an agency that, according to city housing director Steve Barton, essentially has no written procedures.

Mattessich quickly appointed a property manager to oversee the authority-owned public housing. (Before, he says, that duty was spread out among several people, who also were handling Section 8 caseloads.)

In answer to both tenants and landlords who have regularly complained that they would wait weeks to get a return call from a housing authority rep, he's also demanding that his housing representatives return phone calls within 24 hours.

The authority has also brought on a new building maintenance contractor to replace Home Repairs Company of Oakland, which had its $80,000 city contract terminated March 31 after repeated complaints about its poor service. Mattessich and Barton say that Home Repairs used a vacant apartment in one public housing project to store company supplies.

In fairness, the authority's current financial troubles can't all be traced back to internal problems in the bureaucracy. The Bay Area's overheated housing market, combined with the watering down of local rent controls, persuaded many Berkeley landlords to opt out of the Section 8 program in pursuit of bigger profits. Barton explains that back when Berkeley rent control kept rents artificially low, local landlords flocked to the Section 8 program because they could charge higher rents. But that changed when vacancy decontrol went into effect in 1999. Since then, Berkeley has lost 240 Section 8 units.

To persuade landlords to remain in the program, the city asked HUD to boost Section 8 rents to reflect current market rates, which the federal agency did in November 1999. But even when the housing authority tried to do something good, it still screwed up. After getting the rent level increased by HUD, it took the authority six months to inform Section 8 landlords that they could apply for higher rents.

In May, city housing officials got their first piece of good news in a long time when the authority reported that it had brought three units back into the Section 8 program. Still, the authority must lease an additional three hundred units to meet HUD's April deadline.

Barton would like to see the authority identify low-income tenants who have lived in their rent-controlled apartments for a long time. Since under Berkeley rent control laws, landlords can't freely jack up rents unless a tenant moves, Barton reasons that these landlords have an incentive to join the Section 8 program because the federal subsidy would result in higher rents.

Still, city officials acknowledge that meeting the HUD deadline will require a St. Louis Rams-like turnaround. "It's going to be quite a challenge based on our past performance," concedes City Manager Weldon Rucker. Because the housing authority relies on administrative fees from the Section 8 program, the fewer vouchers it issues, the less money it gets from the feds. Because of the recent drop-off in Section 8 rentals, the authority has had to dip into its reserves to balance its annual budget. This year, the City Council earmarked $150,000 from the general fund to keep the authority afloat.

In the event that the housing authority doesn't meet HUD's April deadline, city officials will have a few options to consider. One would be for the City Council to continue to subsidize the housing authority operation with general fund money -- money that should be paying for such basic services as police and fire protection. Another possibility being discussed: Contract out housing authority operations to another agency like the Alameda County Housing Authority. But Section 8 and public housing residents, despite their past troubles with the Berkeley Housing Authority, have expressed reservations about having the county take over the program.

Pinkie Payne, a public housing resident who sits on the board of the housing authority as a tenant representative, is one of those people who doesn't want to punt the authority's operations to another agency, even though she herself has had problems with the BHA. Records show that her unit failed four consecutive housing inspections, but HUD officials could find no record of work orders being issued for the repairs.

Asked how the repair service has been, Payne cautiously replies, "Lately, it hasn't been the best." Nonetheless, she says having the county run things would not necessarily improve tenants' lives. In fact, she fears it could complicate their lives because they'd have to travel to the county's Hayward office (city officials hope the county would open up a local office). She also fears that Berkeley residents wouldn't be given priority for assistance should the county take over.

"Let's hope [the situation] will be rectified," she says. "That's the best we can hope for."

Housing authority board member Helen Wheeler, a Section 8 tenant, doubts that the situation can be rectified anytime soon.

"In the best of all worlds," Wheeler says, "it would be best for our tenants for the housing authority to stay in Berkeley, assuming it's well managed. But it's not the best thing for Berkeley tenants right now with the housing authority in its current condition and the way it's been managed in years past."

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