The Berkeley Housing Authority has accused a 70-year-old man, who is mentally impaired of neglecting to report that he was receiving general assistance payments. The man has said he believed he had informed the BHA, but the authority insisted on taking the man to a hearing, where he could have lost his housing.
Fortunately for him, Naomi Young, housing attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, learned of the situation, stepped in at the hearing and cleared up the mess.
“It’s (potentially) a very serious problem for a minor infraction,” said Young, who wants to see the BHA strengthen its advocacy for vulnerable clients.
With two other Legal Aid attorneys, Young wrote a report asking the Housing Authority, already under the gun from the federal government to make a host of improvements, to change procedures to serve victims of abuse, disabled persons and people with limited English skills better. Moreover, the attorneys asked the BHA to improve its due process procedures. They presented the report at a Housing Authority meeting March 21.
The Legal Aid attorneys have been looking at deficiencies in various housing agencies in the area.
“Berkeley seems more deficient than others,” Young said.
Victims of spousal/partner abuse often have to leave home quickly and should get priority consideration for subsidized housing, the report said, quoting a Ford Foundation study that reported that 50 percent of homeless women are without shelter due to domestic violence.
In the Bay Area, 80 percent of those who want to go to battered women’s shelters are turned away for lack of space, the Legal Aid report says, concluding: “Finding and preserving affordable housing is an essential step for abuse survivors in their struggle to keep themselves and their children safe.”
And there are special considerations the Housing Authority should take to support abuse victims. When one spouse batters the other in a subsidized unit and the victim moves out, the victim should receive a new housing voucher, the report said.
Further, when battery causes property damage to a public housing unit, the Housing Authority should seek payment by the perpetrator, not by the victim.
People who speak little English should also have special consideration from the Housing Authority, Legal Aid attorneys said. Their leases and other notices should be in the language they understand. And interpreters should be available at hearings.
Some 15 percent of Berkeley residents self-identify as having a disability and, says Legal Aid, disabled persons are three times more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. Because this group cannot afford Berkeley rents, they should be given greater access to public housing.
Legal Aid attorneys say that the BHA has erred in not writing specific instructions for BHA staff on getting and keeping disabled persons in public housing. Accommodations should include explicit permission to have companion and service animals, parking accommodations, accessible units, and lease modifications to allow payment of rent on a date tied to receipt of disability payments.
Acting BHA Manager Berverli Marshall said in a phone interview Monday that she was sorry the Legal Aid attorneys had not contacted her before making their report public.
She explained that BHA is not allowed to prioritize any single group, such as victims of abuse or disabled people.
The Housing and Urban Development Department has no preference requirements, Marshall said.
“Each agency is allowed to adopt its own preferences,” she said.
The Housing Authority Board, made up of the City Council and two public housing residents, can write its own policies, Marshall said.
Moreover, the Housing Authority does consider individual needs, she said. It deals with situations on a case-by-case basis.
As for translating documents, Marshall said that will be done. First, however, the BHA has to survey the residents to ascertain their language needs. The BHA now has software that will help compile the data, Marshall said.
Finally, there is the due process question. BALA would like public housing clients to be better informed of their rights and of the agencies that can help them keep their housing.
But Marshall said they already give the required information to the residents.
“We tell them that there is a process and how much time they have to respond,” she said. “We’re not required to tell them about other agencies. We don’t need to list agencies like Bay Area Legal Aid.”
The BHA is responsible for 75 city-owned units of public housing and about 1,840 units of Section 8 housing, where housing subsidies are paid to private landlords.
The Housing Authority has until June to clear up some of the problems identified by HUD including failure to meet annual deadlines to re-certify Section 8 recipients, complete unit inspections and submit reports to HUD. If they fail to comply, another agency, such as the Oakland Housing Authority, could take over the BHA.
Young said Legal Aid understands that clearing up these problems will take precedence for the BHA. She said she hoped to meet with Marshall after that time.