Council’s AHA moments

Do our politicians (or some of them) have it in for the Alameda Housing Authority?

Sometimes it sure seems that way.

Established in 1940, AHA is an autonomous entity governed by its own Board of Commissioners and is the City’s premier supplier of affordable housing.  It provides  Housing Choice and Project‑Based vouchers to low‑income households (and pays a rental subsidy each month for about 1,500 households holding a voucher); develops multi‑family housing projects (three new complexes – Everett Commons, Littlejohn Commons, and Rosefield Village – have been built or expanded since 2018, and another – North Housing – is in the works); and owns and/or manages other rental properties around town (as of June, a total of 677 units will be available for rent).  It also runs various City housing programs.

The latest maneuvers at City Hall have targeted the last of these functions.

Each year, the City receives approximately $1.15 million from the federal government in Community Development Block Grants, which are used to pay for services to low‑income households by non‑profits like the Alameda Point Collaborative and Building Futures with Women and Children.  It also receives funds from the County for HOME Investment Partnerships.  AHA had been administering these grants under contract with the City since April 2014.  But in June 2020, Council voted to take that role away from AHA – “transition” is the word the staff report used – and give it to City staff.

Now, Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Vice Mayor Malia Vella want to take another step in the same direction.  They have brought a Council referral, which is scheduled to be heard at the next Council meeting Tuesday, to terminate the Housing Authority’s contract – which still has more than a year to run – to administer the City’s rent program.  This job they want to turn over to the City Attorney.

As the rent program administrator, AHA is responsible, among other things, for:

  • Registering all rental units in the city and maintaining a corresponding database;
  • Computing the maximum annual rent increase allowed for units subject to the rent‑control ordinance and notifying landlords accordingly;
  • Hearing petitions filed by landlords to raise, and tenants to reduce, the rent above or below the maximum;
  • Reviewing notices of termination filed by landlords to ensure compliance with the “just cause” ordinance;
  • Preparing an annual report containing data about rent increases and tenancy terminations and describing the state of local rental market.

The original three-year contract for AHA to administer the rent program was signed in June 2017, and renewed for another three years in June 2020.  The contract gives the City the right to terminate the agreement on 180‑days notice, and it is this right Ms. Ashcraft and Ms. Vella want to exercise.

But we are left to wonder:  Why?

As far as we can tell, the answer doesn’t relate to any alleged failure by AHA to perform its contractual obligations.  Executive Director Vanessa Cooper told us that, since the contract was renewed, the Housing Authority has received no complaints about its administration of the rent program from any City official, elected or non‑elected, or from any housing advocacy group.  Ms. Ashcraft declined to say whether she personally was dissatisfied with AHA’s performance; Ms. Vella did not respond to our email.

Instead, the referral pitches the termination as a simple exercise in sound business management.  “The City Attorney’s Office works closely with rent program staff on matters of importance to tenants and landlords, so it is more efficient to locate this program in a City department,” it states. “Doing so may also result in significant cost savings which can be used to support the rent program.”

Well, we certainly commend the Mayor and Vice Mayor for their interest in enhancing governmental efficiency.  But as much as we respect City Attorney Yibin Shen and the eight attorneys and four paralegals in his office, it seems to us that such a highly trained and well‑paid staff might be a bit overqualified to take over the administrative tasks now being handled by AHA.

When we asked whether there were any other reasons for terminating AHA’s contract, Ms. Ashcraft declined to say; Ms. Vella did not respond to our email.

This isn’t the first time the two Council members have taken a shot (Ms. Vella) or thrown a dart (Ms. Ashcraft) at AHA.

Back in October 2019, Ms. Vella joined with Councilman Jim Oddie in submitting a Council referral to direct staff to “present options” for “increasing accountability of, and addressing potential conflict of interest issues at” the Housing Authority.

The referral wasn’t very specific about the problems it sought to redress or the remedy it sought to impose.  But maybe the point wasn’t to bring about substantive reforms but rather to make a political gesture.

At Council’s two prior meetings, a tenant in one of the rental properties owned by AHA had shown up during the “oral communications” period to complain about alleged mistreatment by AHA.  She was followed by a housing “activist” who demanded that, “Something must be done about the Housing Authority.”  Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella, both of whom had courted the Alameda Renters Coalition and other pro‑tenant groups during their campaigns, were eager to oblige.

The hearing on the referral was primarily political theater.  Mr. Oddie devoted himself to pledging allegiance to the tenants’ cause: “When you come to me and want someone to be your advocate, I will be that advocate,” he proclaimed.  (If Donald Trump had acted that way, it would be called, “playing to your base.”)  But he also attacked AHA so egregiously – “Our Housing Authority can do whatever they want, and there’s no oversight by the City Council on that” – that he earned a rebuke for his over-the-top rhetoric from Ms. Ashcraft.

Ms. Vella was less strident, but frustratingly (though typically) vague.  “What I’m looking for,” she said, “is kind of the different options for the Council in terms of addressing the underlying issues.”  Ultimately, City Manager Eric Levitt offered a face‑saving way out.  He recommended convening an “informal stakeholder group” that would focus on “accountability,” “conflict of interest,” and “transparency,” and would also address hearing officers and informal mediation.  This group then would decide whether a “more formalized” process was necessary.  Mr. Levitt stated that his goal was to bring back a report to Council in four months.

Council voted unanimously to accept Mr. Levitt’s recommendation.  But that’s the last the public heard of it.  When we asked what happened, Mr. Levitt told us that “we informally met with the stakeholders and brought in an outside facilitator to work through the issues.  Due in part to some of the issues we were working through and in part [to] the pandemic and having to go remote, it took longer than expected.  The facilitation did conclude.”  He also confirmed that no report had been presented to Council.

For her part, AHA’s Ms. Cooper had declared during the meeting that “we believe that the [housing] advocates have an important role.”  And she appears to have meant what she said.  AHA Commissioners and staff met with ARC representatives on four occasions in 2020, Ms. Cooper told us, and AHA senior management played host to an additional eight meetings for ARC and other advocacy groups in 2020 and 2021.  A final meeting with ARC was held in March 2021, “during which time both parties agreed on a complaints resolution process in the event that new issues were to arise.  No new issues have been submitted since 2020.”

According to Ms. Cooper, the Housing Authority also has taken a number of what she called “best practices” steps to improve its relations with tenants in AHA‑owned properties.  Among other things, it:

  • Wrote to all tenants and “assisted participants” to ensure that “everyone has information on inspections, noticing and filing complaints”;
  • Hired an outside law firm in December 2020 to conduct informal hearings;
  • Created a new position for a Community Relations Manager and filled it in early 2021;
  • Established an Ombudsman Program for complaints that cannot be resolved through its regular processes;
  • Provided a “wide range of training” to its staff on customer service, fair housing, nondiscrimination, diversity, equity and inclusion, and handling reasonable accommodation requests; and
  • Reconfigured the reception desk set‑up and hired additional reception staffing.

In addition, the Housing Authority publishes a quarterly newsletter, and AHA senior management conducts quarterly meetings with housing advocates.

Unfortunately, we’re unable to report whether these (or any other) actions taken by AHA mollified the Council members who brought the referral.  Mr. Oddie, of course, lost his bid for re-election in 2020, and Ms. Vella did not respond to our email.

At the October 2019 meeting, Mayor Ashcraft was not one of those on the dais who went after AHA.  Indeed, she declared that, “We’re fortunate in this city to have the Housing Authority working for our residents.”  But within two years she had become a critic.

Beginning in April 2021, Council held a series of discussions about how to spend the $28.68 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds the City would be receiving from the federal government.  Council directed staff to come up with a spending plan with a “housing focus,” but staff apparently didn’t seek any input from AHA until Councilwoman Trish Spencer repeatedly urged it to do so.  (The Merry-Go-Round made the same suggestion.)

In response, AHA identified four possible housing‑related uses for the ARPA funds:  establishing an “eviction prevention and rapid rehousing fund”; “jumpstart[ing]” construction on 90 units of permanent supportive housing at the North Housing site; buying or leasing‑to‑own existing multifamily/motel suites, and “expedit[ing]” development of affordable housing.  (A $10 million expenditure could be leveraged, the Housing Authority said, into 30 new units.)

Ms. Ashcraft rejected AHA’s ideas out of hand.  “I strenuously object to any expenditure at this time to . . . the Alameda Housing Authority,” she declared at the outset of her comments during the Council meeting on September 7, 2021.

The Mayor went on to suggest that AHA could use its own ARPA funds for the identified purposes, and asked, “Why does it need funding the City received?”  (In fact, AHA didn’t receive any ARPA funds itself; it did get CARES Act money, but its use was restricted to the HCV program.)  The Mayor continued:  “So I can’t figure out whether this is just the Housing Authority’s way of getting cheaper money, because presumably there wouldn’t be a finance charge from the City.  And if it’s just meant to supplant funds that they will get eventually, then I guess it’s a loan.”

And then, sounding a lot like Mr. Oddie two years previously, Ms. Ashcraft decried AHA’s performance as an owner/manager of rental properties.  “I’m disappointed to say,” she stated, that “as far as . . . eviction protection by the Housing Authority [is concerned], I have personally been involved with more than one Alameda Housing Authority tenant and have had to go to bat for them.”  The City should not give any of its ARPA funds to AHA, she concluded, “without more explanation and some safeguards in place.”

Ms. Spencer rose to AHA’s defense, but – needless to say – Council didn’t allocate any money to the Housing Authority for any of the items it suggested.

(The Mayor politely declined our invitation to elaborate on the basis for her comments.)

Now, it is not our goal to create a controversy where none exists.  But a pattern does seem to have emerged in which various Council members have seen fit to take potshots at AHA and to urge shifting its functions to City staff or even to Council itself.

Which, frankly, strikes us as a little strange.  The politicians talk a lot about their commitment to affordable housing – but AHA actually walks the walk.  And it does so in a variety of ways:  housing vouchers, multi‑family apartment complexes, below‑market‑rate rental units.  Moreover, we’re not aware of any evidence that AHA has botched the job of administering the rent program (or any other program).  If it ain’t broke . . .

We could, of course, be missing something.  Maybe, unbeknownst to us or the general public, AHA in fact is an insensitive and incompetent outfit that can’t be trusted to serve the housing needs of Alameda’s low‑income households.  Or maybe the critics are right, and City staffers, with direct supervision by Council, could take over tasks now being done by AHA and still be able to carry out their myriad other duties.

Neither Ms. Ashcraft nor Ms. Vella has any obligation to explain themselves to us.  But we hope that they’ll not be so recalcitrant when the issue comes up on a public agenda next Tuesday.

Sources:

AHA strategic plan: Strategic Plan 2019-2021

CDBG program: 2014-04-18 staff report re services agreement; 2020-06-16 staff report re grant services;

Rent program: 2017-06-06 staff report re contract with AHA; 2020-06-16 staff report re rent program services; 2021-10-19 Ex. 1 to staff report – Draft Annual Report

Oddie-Vella referral: 2019-10-15 Vella-Oddie referral

Ashcraft-Vella referral: 2022-02-15 Ashcraft-Vella referral re rent program

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall, Housing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Council’s AHA moments

  1. Darnell says:

    Councilmember Vella is missing in action. She is known for ignoring emails from her constituents. During council meetings her camera is often turned off and she is on camera, she is often distracted with childcare. It’s hard to understand why Ms. Vella even wants to serve as a councilmember.

  2. David says:

    Vella and Ashcraft are simply trying to get their hands on more money to redistribute it to their fire department friends. It’s also a matter of pandering to ARC, with whom they’ve been close and on whom their re-election apparently depends.

  3. Common Sense says:

    Something smells here, and AG Bonta May be involved. The City clearly wants control of the money AHA currently controls, and the City has also made clear AHA cannot have the new Federal money. No one mentioned any “cost savings” by terminating current AHA employees if
    the City takes over.
    If put under the City Attorney’s office, this would make the City Attorney’s office judge, jury and executioner for landlords, as currently the City Attorney handles all Landlord-tenant disputes which are designed only to help the tenants, not the property owner.
    Methinks that the City Attorney is planning a new crackdown on landlords in conjunction with AG Rob Bonta’s statewide effort to support a non-existent “right to housing.” But negative incentives, such as legal threats, never provide more housing, only cause landowners to take their properties off the market.

  4. Wake Up! says:

    It’s a power play over who controls the goodies. Once the rental coalition and their pols control the AHA, they can reward persons with rental subsidies. There using the City Attorney’s office to turn the screw tighter on AHA; anyway they go, the ARC \ Vella \ Ashcroft win. Rent control administration in hand of City Attorney, they win; AHA still remains as administers of the program, they still win, because now AHA leadership is weakened yet again in the face of unceasing onslaught by the ARC and their pols — soon enough AHA will cave and start rewarding housing subsidies to ARC and their constituents. This is a power play over who controls the goodies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s