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An Uncertain Future For Berkeley's Section 8 Tenants

by Lynda Carson Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 at 9:13 AM

City Officials Take The Heat For Housing Authority Failures

An Uncertain Future For Berkeley's Section 8 Tenants

By Lynda Carson August 28, 2006

Years of negligence and recklessness have brought the Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) to the brink of collapse, as the blame game begins and finger pointing has turned up the heat on BHA's director Steve Barton and Berkeley's City Manager Phil Kamlarz.

The names of Barton and Kamlarz can be found on most reports submitted to the BHA's Board Members, and their involvement in the failure of the operations at the Housing Authority have been on-going during recent past years. According to their own reports, some of the biggest problems facing the BHA have been the huge amount of errors in the reports being submitted to HUD through the years, by BHA's own staff.

In addition, two years ago, HUD cut funding by 13 percent, resulting in estimated shortages at the BHA of $73,000 in FY 2004 and another $212,000 in FY 2005. The Bush administration wants to cut an additional 8 percent this year. As a result of budget cuts and mismanagement at the BHA during the past few years, the Housing Authority was dropped from being listed as a standard performer, and has been listed as a troubled agency.

The crisis at the BHA became so severe, that as recent as last June, the Berkeley City Council voted to offer a one time loan of $150,000 out of the general fund, to help keep the embattled agency afloat.

Considering the huge movement in Berkeley to convert apartments into condominiums and the Housing Authority being on the verge of a HUD take-over, many low-income renters of Berkeley fear they are soon to be forced out of town, such as what has occurred to the poor in New Orleans after Katrina tore up that city.

More than 200 low-income residents of Berkeley showed up at an Aug. 26, tenant's community meeting at the South Berkeley Senior Center, to hear the latest about their bleak future prospects in public housing and the Section 8 program in Berkeley.

Berkeley may be known as a progressive town with a liberal bent, but like San Francisco and many other major cities across the nation, it's business as usual and the poor are at risk of losing their housing as the politicians continue to sell out to wealthy developers.

Theres more than 1,800 low-income families in Berkeley's Section 8 program, most are African-American, and more than half are elderly and disabled.

Section 8 tenant Clara Johnson said, "I am in opposition to the dog and pony show being staged by the City Manager and BHA director Steve Barton on Aug. 26, and would have preferred a meeting that would have been a bit more authentic, such as what the original organizers had in mind before their event was stolen from them."

Originally, the tenant's group known as Save Berkeley Housing Authority, organized the Aug. 26, tenant's event, and planned their own agenda and speakers. After the organizers refused to hand over control of their meeting to the City Manager, the City Manager took total control of the meeting and appointed his own speakers and moderator, despite the opposition.

City Manager Phil Kamlarz and BHA's Steve Barton hi-jacked the tenant's event in an effort to shift the focus of the meeting away from organizing the tenants to save their housing. "We want this to be more of an informational meeting, instead of a meeting to teach tenants how they may lobby to save their housing. We do not want to offend HUD," Barton said.

Kokavulu Lumukanda, another Section 8 tenant in Berkeley said, "As to why the City Manager has chosen to thwart a lawful citizens protest, regarding BHA irregularities, it is indeed wrong. His overbearingness should have been spent in oversight of the BHA, so as to have prevented it's irregularities from ever having occurred."

Tenant activist Patrick Kehoe said, "This is a systemic problem in the BHA. The annual cost of living increases for the staff are so high, theres never enough funding left over in the budget to higher new staff as others leave the agency through the years."

In contrast to attempts by the City Manager to subdue the Aug. 26, event, Councilwoman Dona Spring surprised everyone when she said, "The tenants of Alameda rose up to save their housing vouchers and the tenants in Berkeley should do the same. I also want everyone to vote against the condo-conversion ordinance thats coming up before the voters, so that we can save our low-income housing," Spring said.

Save Berkeley Housing Authority worked with Councilwoman Dona Spring to organize the event, and on July 25, Spring had the BHA Board Members vote on a motion to direct the BHA to send out invitations to over 1,800 BHA tenants, to invite them to the Aug. 26, event. Immediately afterword, the City Manager started in with his attempts to take control of the event being organized by the tenants group and Councilwoman Spring.

"Due to the tenant's movement to get people involved to save their housing, it looks like City Officials are going to be forced to fight to save this Housing Authority. I think they planned to quietly let it slip away, but with so much attention being placed on the BHA, everything is now out in the open and can't be ignored," said Lori Kossowsky.

The meeting’s speakers were stacked with City Officials, including Councilwoman Dona Spring, Councilmen Kris Worthington, Max Anderson and Laurie Capitelli, Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) director Steve Barton, BHA acting manager Tia Ingram, BHA Board Member's Adolph Moody and Dorthy Hunt, Rent Board Member Eleanor Walden, Police liasion Taj Johns as the moderator and Section 8 tenant Patrick Kehoe.

The highlight of the staged-event by City Officials was when BHA's acting manager Tia Ingram stated that on Friday Aug. 25, the BHA submitted a Semap report to HUD that was scored at 90 points out of 100 points. "This is all very good news," said Ingram. Semap is a way to measure how well a Housing Authority is doing in running it's day to day operations of the Section 8 program and public housing.

Barely one day later during a KPFA news report, Barton placed Ingram's statement in total doubt, when he stated that the BHA only scored 60 to 61 points on the Semap report that was just submitted on Friday. This leaves little room for error in HUD's assessment of the report which may lower the score even further after closer scrutiny. Anything below a 60 scoring is failure, and may be subject to HUD getting involved in the BHA as a result. HUD's assessment results of the Semap report are expected to be released sometime during September or October.

As recent as June 27, the BHA Board Members voted to give the City Manager the authority to negotiate the future of the BHA with HUD Officials. The options being considered are to dismantle the BHA, allow it to fall into receivorship and a HUD take-over would occur, consolidating it with the Alameda County Housing Authority, or restructuring it somehow so that it functions properly and remains under local Berkeley control.

In an act of concience during the Aug. 26, meeting, Councilman Kris Worthington and Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) director Steve Barton both admitted that they were at fault for the crisis taking place at the Housing Authority. "The City Council failed to spend enough time to run the Housing Authority properly, and the City Council Members also failed to receive the information needed to know what was going on in the agency," Worthington said.

Councilman Capitelli chimed in by saying, "This meeting has offered me more information than I have received from the Housing Authority during the past 2 years."

At this point in the meeting, Barton looked quite uncomfortable with so much blame being placed on his shoulders for the failures of the BHA, and the criticism being leveled at him for working with the City Manager to take control of the event from tenant organizers.

As much as City Officials tried to stay in control of the event and blunt the tenant's movement with their dog and pony show, when it came time for the audience to ask questions, the news kept getting worse.

A speaker from the audience mentioned that he read in the Berkeley Daily Planet that the Section 8 contracts in Berkeley are soon to be reduced in value and he wanted to know if this was true.

Barton shocked the audience when he stated that one third of the more than 1,800 families in the BHA faced a reduction in Section 8 rent payments to their landlords in April of 2007, and may have to pay more in rent as a result, or move into a cheaper apartment if they wanted to save their Section 8 vouchers. A new HUD policy goes into effect in April 2007, in which the Fair Market Rents (FMRs) are reduced in Berkeley, resulting in the payment reductions to Section 8 contracts in Berkeley.

When it was apparent that the audience became very alarmed about the soon to be reduction's to their existing Section 8 contracts, City Officials immediately tried to calm people down. "Theres no need to panic," said Taj Johns the moderator of the event.

Local homeless activist Michael Diehl suddenly stepped forward and exclaimed, "Nows the time to panic, don't wait until your homeless before you decide to panic!"

When Rent Board Member Eleanor Walden was asked what she thought of the event, she said, "I thought that what was important is that we fired people up to fight for their housing, and people realized that they did'nt need the elite to speak out for them. They looked around and could see that they could do it among themselves. The people were empowered to have the right and ability to lobby on their own behalf."

Walden also a member of the tenants group Save berkeley Housing Authority, worked hard to help organize this event and spent out of her own pocket enough money to cover the cost of 50 informational packets being handed out to the audience.

Members of the tenant's group defied the attempts of the City Manager to exclude them from the meeting, and it's members wandered around the meeting handing out information packets, taking turns speaking to the crowd and they collected names and phone numbers to contact people for future events.

According to tenant activist Patrick Kehoe, "HUD feels the BHA is not getting the attention it
needs and has suggested that the City Council appoint a new governing board. A less formal governing structure with in depth discussion of BHA policies might be the catalyst that gets an active tenants organization started."

"The higher salaries for the BHA staff, who are employed by the City of Berkeley—not the housing authority like other local housing authorities, in combination with HUD’s reduction of fees paid to housing authorities for administrative costs, is what has caused staff reductions and subsequent delinquent reports, resulting in troubled agency status," said Kehoe.

Kehoe would like to see the City of Berkeley provide an ongoing subsidy from the City’s general fund to pay for the additional staff needed to get the BHA caught up on its reporting requirements and out of troubled agency status, and continue the subsidy for a couple of years to see how much it will cost to maintain the BHA.

Members of Save Berkeley Housing Authority are urging the community to show up at the 6pm, September 19, Berkeley City Council Meeting at Berkeley's Old City Hall, to speak out and keep the BHA under local control.

Lynda Carson is a member of the tenant's group, Save Berkeley Housing Authority and may be reached at: tenantsrule@yahoo.com

The tenants group is also asking everyone who is reading this story to clip out the following form letter, fill it out and mail it to:

Berkeley City Council
City of Berkeley
2180 Milvia St.
Berkeley, California 94704


Dear ___________________________________

The Berkeley Housing Authority is in a crisis, and needs your support to maintain full funding so that there is enough staff to operate the housing assistance programs properly.

As you are aware, public housing is home to almost 3 million seniors, people with disabilities and low-income families with children; approximately one million children live in public housing. More than half (52%) of all public housing residents are elderly or people with disabilities. Another 4.7 million seniors, people with disabilities and low-income families with children use Section 8 housing choice vouchers.

Due to funding cuts to the nations housing assistance programs in recent years, the Berkeley Housing Authority has lacked the funding needed to properly manage it's public housing and Section 8 program, resulting in a crisis.

I urge the Mayor and all City Council Members to maintain the funding for all additional staff that may be needed to remove the Berkeley Housing Authority from it's troubled status, and to make sure that the public housing and Section 8 program is run properly.

I ask that you do what you can to make the Berkeley Housing Authority functional, and ensure that the annual inspections and Section 8 recertifications are done as a top priority.

We urgently request that you keep the BHA under local control by meeting the minimum HUD standards needed to maintain the housing programs.

We appreciate your previous support of the BHA and all you have done for the elderly and disabled community.

Your continued support of the BHA will help to keep the agency under local control, save the elderly and disabled community from homelessness, and will offer stability to families needing these housing assistance programs.

In advance, thank you for your time and attention to this serious crisis.


Your Signature

(Name and address required)

For more, see Berkeley Daily Planet article below...

City Officials Take Blame for Housing Authority Mess
By Riya Bhattacharjee (08-29-06)

Members of the Save Berkeley Housing Authority (Save BHA), low-income Berkeley residents and city officials got together at the South Berkeley Senior Center on Saturday to discuss the future of public housing and the Section 8 program in Berkeley.

Click below for full story...

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