Berkeley Housing Authority’s board seeks new commissioner

Ashley Chen/File
The Berkeley Housing Authority helps low-income households secure housing in buildings such as the Arpeggio Building, above.

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Mayor Tom Bates announced Tuesday his search for a new commissioner for the Berkeley Housing Authority, an independent agency that administers low-income housing.

The housing authority’s board of commissioners oversees the management of low-income housing services such as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which pays the difference between actual rents and what low-income households can afford. The seven-member board consist of two tenants who use the housing authority program and five at-large positions, one of which remains vacant.

“They are the governing body for the housing authority,” said the housing authority’s executive director, Tia Ingram. “They operate much like the City Council does for the city.”

New commissioners are appointed by the mayor and approved by Berkeley City Council. The position of commissioner can be “high-profile,” according to Bates, considering major changes the housing authority has made. For example, around February, the housing authority sold 75 low-income units to Related California, a developer backed by a private real estate firm.

Although the housing authority used to own these units, it could not pay for necessary renovation, according to the housing authority’s chair, Carole Norris. Now, Related California has begun renovation of the units, which are still designated as low-income housing and set to be completed in October, according to Ingram.

Bates said he hopes to make recommendations for a new commissioner to City Council by its Sept. 30 meeting. Whomever the council ultimately approves will join an ongoing struggle with the housing authority’s need for funds.

“How do they remain viable? How do they get the economics to maintain themselves as an independent housing authority?” Bates said.

Berkeley’s housing authority receives its money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, although it may seek an ongoing subsidy from the city as a possible source of more funding, Norris said.

Housing authorities in other places have diversified roles. Berkeley’s, though, has not done so, because of its small size and because it does not want to expand into the territory occupied by good housing developers that already exist, Norris said. If unable to remain viable on its own, the housing authority may consider merging with a larger housing entity.

The housing authority had two vacancies over the past year, one of which was filled by tenant Marva Cremer. UC Berkeley student Michael Bailey also applied, although he did not qualify because he lived in Albany, and commissioners must be Berkeley residents.

Commissioners attend a couple of meetings per month and serve at least a year. According to Norris, interest in joining the board has historically been low.

“It’s not the sexiest commission. It’s a lot of hard work, and there’s no pay,” Norris said. “There’s not a whole lot of people who can afford to work for nothing.”

Bates will accept applications until Sept. 8.

Melissa Wen is the lead city news reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.