Home, Sweet Hell 

Local housing authorities have become so dysfunctional that Berkeley has fired itself and Oakland has sued itself.

People in the Bay Area are so busy mapping a fungus genome or rolling out the next digital porn platform that they rarely notice they still live amid two of the Great Society's most notable accomplishments: concentrated urban poverty and bureaucratic ineptitude. Yes, I'm talking about housing projects, and they're screwing up all over the place. Over in San Francisco, the city's Housing Authority is so deep in debt — facing $15 million in judgments from sexual harassment and other lawsuits — that it is in danger of falling into receivership. And in the East Bay, the situation has gotten so dire that the City of Berkeley has fired itself, and the City of Oakland has sued itself.

Here's Berkeley's problem in a nutshell: Its residents are too rich. Back in the days of vacancy control, landlords were only too happy to sign up with the city's Section 8 voucher program, because it meant more money than they could get in the heavily regulated private sector. But according to Berkeley housing director Steve Barton, vacancy control was abolished just as the dot-com boom was heating up the housing market, and landlords leasing a total of about five hundred units bailed out to grab the stratospheric new rents. Since the Housing Authority relied on a piece of each Section 8 contract to finance its administrative staff, it was forced to fire people as the cash dried up. Then came the city's fiscal crisis in 2003 and 2004, squeezing the budget once again.

Soon, certain basic administrative functions, such as maintaining the waiting list or touring the housing units to make sure they weren't ratholes, were getting bungled by a skeletal staff. More federal money dried up, even as the feds instituted new requirements to report numbers such as rents. "As I said to the Housing Authority Board in public, I think we made a serious mistake to cut staff in accordance with the HUD cuts, rather than going to the city council and saying, 'We need a subsidy,'" Barton says.

According to Councilman Kriss Worthington, the authority was so swamped that staff simply stopped talking to the public at times. "We had the tenants on the Section 8 vouchers, the landlords, and the employees of the Housing Authority, all three of these groups were coming and protesting how poorly managed the Housing Authority was," he says. "At that point we were told that it is Housing Authority policy not to answer phone calls. Not someone not doing their job — it's policy."

In 2005, officials with the local Housing and Urban Development office put Berkeley on double-secret probation and gave the department until this summer to fix its problems. Once it became clear that the city wasn't going to meet the deadline, a compromise was reached. In the past, the City Council has doubled as the Housing Authority's governing board, along with a few tenant representatives. But two weeks ago, the council voted to dissolve its own authority and farm it out to a citizens' commission. This, say some of the more cynical observers, makes everybody happy: Local HUD officials can report back to Washington and act as if they're doing their job, and council members no longer have to deal with dysfunctional staff or field tenant complaints. It's win-win!

Anyone masochistic enough to want this job can report to Mayor Tom Bates' office. Under the new structure, Worthington says, "The mayor will nominate the members, and the council will vote to rubber-stamp them.

"I mean," he corrects himself, "we'll seriously consider all candidates."

Oakland's problem is the opposite: It's too poor. With roughly 3,300 public housing units, including 254 small apartment complexes scattered around town, the Oakland Housing Authority is one of the city's biggest landlords. While the authority has focused on repairing or replacing its largest projects, the smaller complexes have languished with little oversight or on-site management, and many have become magnets for garbage and drug dealing.

East Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks recalls touring one of these fever swamps — across from an elementary school — with Housing Authority executive director Jon Gresley. "Everybody knew that if you want to buy drugs, you go to that site," she says. "The neighbors knew it, the Housing Authority knew it. ... Jon was telling me how he doesn't have a unit available [for a manager], but we walked through the complex, and in the back there's an empty unit with a squatter living in it. And they had no idea!"

Gresley doesn't recall the squatter part, but he and his staff are quick to point out that the feds have starved his agency of cash. According to an OHA report, the government has underfunded the basic maintenance budget for Oakland's housing projects by more than $8 million since 1995. This fact is repeated in no fewer than four separate charts and graphs, and that, mind you, is in a report that's only three pages long.

This typifies what critics are claiming: that Housing Authority officials are far more creative at explaining why they can't do anything than they are in tackling any of the problems on their properties. Trash. Drugs. Filth. Insects. Vermin.

According to spokeswoman Erica Harrold, the city attorney's office and councilmembers Brooks, Ignacio De La Fuente, and Pat Kernighan have spent a year trying to get the OHA to think a little more imaginatively, only to get the brush-off. The city attorney's office even drafted a letter of understanding outlining demands to deal with the problem, but the authority didn't respond. "We have agreements that we have entered into," De La Fuente says. "They probably go into the wastebasket. They have not really lived up to some of those agreements."

Last month, City Attorney John Russo filed a public nuisance suit in state court, seeking to force the Housing Authority to deal with the blight and criminal activity plaguing its properties. What really annoys Brooks and De La Fuente is that while Gresley pules about the lack of federal funding, his agency has spent millions buying new properties in a practice known as "land banking."

"I said, 'You must be kidding,'" says Brooks, describing her reaction when she learned about it. "They buy it and hold it under the notion that you're going to develop it sometime down the road."

Gresley claims city officials just don't understand the complexities of his job. For one, he says, the city agreed with his decision to buy many of these properties in the first place. They are part of an ongoing campaign to rip out the worst of the big projects and replace them with more decentralized poor- and middle-class housing, thereby easing the concentrated poverty that has caused so much crime and blight.

Yes, the small apartments have problems. But there's only federal money to fix the big housing projects, and Oakland still has plenty of those. Now that some of the worst pits, such as Chestnut Court, have been demolished, that maintenance money can be applied elsewhere, Gresley says: "The Housing Authority has for a number of years invested in rehabbing older, larger sites. And we didn't have money to address the scattered sites. Now we do."

But the pace has been painfully slow — only five major projects have been replaced in more than a decade, and Oakland is actually above average when it comes to ripping out the worst offenders. The Housing Authority has 254 small apartment buildings, each of which suffers from a variety of issues, but has cleaned up only twelve so far. Hey, that's just 242 to go. We should have this problem under control right around the time our superheated oceans rise and drown us all.

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