City Council discusses housing at special work session

Ethan Epstein/Staff

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In a report to City Council at a special work session Tuesday, the Berkeley Housing Authority, or BHA, detailed the negative impact of the city’s high rent prices and federal funding cutbacks on the agency’s efforts to provide affordable housing.

The BHA is an independent agency funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides rental assistance through administering Section 8 vouchers, which assist low-income individuals with obtaining affordable housing. But the agency has had trouble supplying affordable housing options to low-income Berkeley residents because of high rent prices and cutbacks in federal funding, according to BHA Executive Director Tia Ingram.

Given cutbacks from HUD, BHA projects a deficit of $610,000 for 2015-16, which Ingram said will restrict the ability of the agency to increase staff, build new programs and continue to support existing projects.

Ingram said the number of families the agency can assist is based on how much money the agency is able to spend. Units that used to be in reach of voucher holders are now too expensive because of market rents. According to Ingram, the BHA is losing an average of 16 units each month.

“The kind of service we provide to our residents would be lost if not for the BHA,” Ingram said.

At the meeting, BHA proposed possible solutions the city could employ, such as increasing the supply of affordable housing units. Ingram also recommended that the city reach out to the owners of 600 or more rental units that are currently unavailable, potentially creating new housing opportunities, among other recommendations.

The agency also suggested modifying the Housing Trust Fund bylaws, requiring that the BHA be the first option for leasing any affordable units. Such a modification would provide the agency revenue and allow residents to have more units to apply their vouchers, too, Ingram said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilmember Kriss Worthington presented various proposals intended to address affordable housing issues in the city, including a recommendation co-sponsored with Councilmember Max Anderson for a $1 million loan to the Housing Trust Fund and a proposal that may increase the amount and availability of predevelopment funds for affordable housing.

According to Worthington, the city will be eligible in 2016 and 2017 to apply for major funding grant opportunities, but if the city does not prepare well enough, it could go through the next eight rounds of funding applications and not receive millions of dollars in funding.

“It’s very short-sighted to save a few pennies by not funding affordable housing,” Worthington said. “Because you are losing out on millions.”

Zoning Adjustments Board Commissioner Igor Tregub said the proposed $1 million is practical compared to the overall amount of money in the city’s general fund.

Tregub said he believes that creating affordable housing opportunities is an investment to make, but he noted that the overall budgeting process involves different demands from different people because there is not enough in the city budget to fund everything.

“I understand that members of the City Council have raised concerns about whether this is a priority they would like to see, given the other demands on the overall budget,” Tregub said. “That’s where the greatest challenge is going to lie — getting the support of the City Council.”

At the meeting, the Department of Health, Housing and Community Services also presented additional information on the Below Market Rate and Housing Trust Fund programs to help inform the council’s housing policy discussion held later that night.

Contact Brenna Smith and Cassandra Vogel at [email protected].