by Lydia Gans
The East Bay Gray Panthers held a meeting on September 23 at the North Berkeley Senior Center to discuss housing issues in Berkeley. The meeting was organized by Eleanor Walden, co-chair of the Residents Council of Redwood Gardens, a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) project in Berkeley for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.
Redwood Gardens was in the news this past year when residents reported numerous problems in dealing with their management company. Tenants faced long delays in correcting hazardous conditions and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as security threats and disregard for the health and welfare of those who are particularly fragile.
Last year, when management planned major renovations, residents objected that they were given virtually no input in the renovation process.
Redwood tenants began to organize and, last spring, they joined the National Association of HUD Tenants (NAHT).
In June 2015, Walden and another tenant, Avram Gur Arye, attended the annual NAHT conference in Washington, D.C. What they learned at the conference and the contacts they made motivated them to organize tenants in other HUD projects in the area to fight for proper treatment by the owners of their residences.
NAHT is the national coalition of local tenant organizations of residents living in privately owned or nonprofit housing complexes that receive project-based, Section 8 housing assistance from HUD. This is distinct from the public housing owned by local housing authorities.
Walden and Arye began the meeting by reporting on the NAHT conference. They found that their problems with management are not unique and determined to connect with other projects in the area.
“We learned that tenants have rights,” Walden declared.
After their report, Gary Hicks, co-chair of the Redwood Gardens Residents Council, took over running the meeting.
Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington spoke of the increasing need for really affordable housing and read from a flyer he had written with the message: “Berkeley needs truly AFFORDABLE affordable housing funding and policy reform.”
It added up to a strong indictment by Worthington directed at members of the Berkeley City Council who act in the interests of developers and wealthy landlords against the needs of people with low or modest incomes. That does not apply to Councilman Jesse Arreguin, he assured the audience.
On the flyer, Worthington lists “23 possible reforms” that are reasonable and could somewhat ameliorate the housing situation. Several are or will be on the City Council agenda. But he couldn’t help pointing out that so-called affordable housing that is reserved for people with 50 percent of the East Bay’s area median income (AMI) is hardly affordable — and it’s more than he earns!
Worthington also talked about the importance of organizing, and of knowing your rights and demanding to be heard. He recalled the message of the disability movement of the 1970s:”NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US!”
HUD representatives Bill Rogina and Robin Thompson were there to answer questions and provide some background on the functions of the agency. Rogina has worked on a national level for many years to produce housing.
Thompson works in the management of the housing. She currently manages 80 properties, a considerable workload.
Thompson was asked about an issue that concerns the tenants, not only in Redwood Gardens, but in other projects as well. Walden had mentioned that it came up among delegates at the NAHT conference in Washington, D.C. Project owners are doing massive remodeling in the buildings, including in individual residential units, at great inconvenience and often without input from the tenants. This received some publicity in the local press when it was happening in Berkeley last year.
What is worrisome to the tenants is not just the process, but the motivation behind it. The suspicion is that the owners plan to sell the apartment buildings that tenants call home. That is usually what happens when a property is put on the market.
Thompson was mildly reassuring. She used the term “opt out.” “We are really the good guys,” she said. “It’s very rare for an owner to want to opt out, nor are projects owned by nonprofits interested in opting out.” But she didn’t deny that it has happened.
“What if a tenant wanted or needed to move?” someone asked. She explained that moving out would be a very foolish thing to do. Leaving the project means losing their access to affordable housing. They cannot take the Section 8 voucher with them. Once they move out, the voucher belongs to the unit. “Don’t move,” she warned. “Don’t move!”
Several of the attendees spoke up about the importance of connecting with tenants in other Bay Area projects to share information and take effective action. Someone pointed out that if tenants don’t know their rights — or give up insisting on them — they can’t expect to solve their problems with the management.
Several people brought up issues in their housing situation and looked forward to meeting with tenants in other HUD projects to compare experiences.
HUD representatives Thompson and Rogina added that any issues addressed to HUD should also be sent to the individual’s Congressional representative. HUD is required to respond to Congress within five days. That was a very useful piece of information most people had not been aware of.
After the meeting, Walden expressed satisfaction over the connection with the HUD representatives. “We certainly look forward to working with them,” she added. She was pleased with the meeting, saying she saw it as “a foothold for going on to arrange other meetings or forums with HUD tenants in this area.”