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Market rate rents, the elephant in our Section 8 housing project's boardroom

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To: Senators Boxer & Feinstein & Congresswoman Lee

From: Jane Stillwater, Berkeley, CA 94703, 510-843-0581

Dear Senators & Congresswoman:

How many people are aware that in 1979, Jimmy Carter established a Section 8 affordable housing project in every city in America? And that my home town got one too? Our project is called "Savo Island Cooperative Homes" -- named after the first naval battle the United States won in the Pacific during World War II. It's located on Stuart Street, across the street from the fabulous Berkeley Bowl.

Savo Island is subsidized by HUD. It has a Board of Directors. It needs a rehab. Badly. The siding is falling off the buildings. The roofs really leak. There is a six million dollar rehab project now in progress. The Board of Directors has spent the last four years dragging its feet about the rehab. Why?

The elephant in the Board Room appears to be that if the rehab goes through, the market-rate Board members who are not on the HUD Section 8 subsidy program -- because their income is far too high, high enough for them to easily live elsewhere whereas the rest of us have no choice -- will have to pay higher rents. Hence the obvious foot-dragging on every aspect of this rehab. The rehab is now four years behind schedule. Our architects, our contractors, our project manager, our bankers and HUD are frantic. And since HUD won't pay Section 8 subsidies for below-code units, most of the residents here are frantic too.

Bottom line: Jimmy Carter's dream for my home town will no longer exist, 49 low-income families will lose their homes and the developers who hover over this property like vultures can finally get their hands on our prime real estate.

At the last Board meeting, the rehab was effectively stopped in its tracks. Again. One Board member (who, BTW, was involved in trying to shove the massive Ashby BART condo development project down our neighborhood's throat) sent a half an hour tearfully explaining to us that if we actually went ahead and approved the use of fiber-cement siding -- now safely used all across America and even recommended by environmentalists -- that Savo's old people and children would most likely DIE from the toxicity.

Elephant dookie.

The Savo Island rehab project is effectively dead. Because we have gone out on a financial limb that the Board then cut off, we've got a long fall in front of us. Contractors who have been forced to sit on their hands for over a year will have a lien on our property. Residents will have grounds for a lawsuit against Board members who put their own self-interest in front of the interests of the co-op. Our bank will foreclose on the loan. HUD will leave us high and dry. The local condo developers will score bigtime. I will lose my nice cozy home. And Jimmy Carter will lose too. But the ironic thing is that the market-rate Board members will lose also. Even though the rehab has been effectively blocked, their rents will STILL go up -- at least until the buildings fall apart and the place is condemned.

****

Footnote 1: Here is a copy of my report on building siding materials, dated from before the last Board meeting involving all those toxicity tears. Please ignore the part about Savo having $300,000 extra to spend. Our project manager just set me straight on that one!

Savo Island Building Siding Alternative Report
By Jane Stillwater, Board Member

Two Savo Island Board members were unofficially selected to serve as the Board's go-between to our excellent team of building experts (architect, general contractor & project manager). These two Board members have recently issued a report regarding building siding recommendations, recommending that we need to spend over $300,000 extra in order to purchase wood siding. The following is my own unofficial dissenting report:

According to the Alameda County Waste Management Authority's Green Building Guidelines on the environmental impact of building siding, wood is not the best option at all. "High maintenance costs and detrimental harvesting practices make wood siding products less than desirable than other options...that are more durable and need less maintenance," the report clearly states.

"Preferable siding includes fiber-cement stucco, composition (hardboard) and brick or stone. These products are more durable than wood, easier to maintain and are made with [ecologically] sustainable materials."

Regarding fiber-cement, the report states, "Fiber-cement siding is gaining popularity as a safe, durable product.... Durable siding materials protect a building from premature deterioration. Longer life span means less waste in landfills and lower replacement costs."

The report then states that "fiber-cement siding can be cut with shaper shears," thus eliminating the danger of silica dust in the air during construction. The Green Building Guidelines article concludes with a further description of the advantages of fiber-cement, stucco, composition siding and brick. Wood siding is not even mentioned again.

My main interest in building siding other than that we choose some siding immediately and get on with it so that we can get on with the construction which should have been finished by now instead of just costing us more money because of the many Board-generated delays is which siding will save us the most money on heating bills. But whatever your criteria, please come to the special Board meeting on Thursday December 7, 2006 in the Community Room at 7:00 pm and ask our architect and our project manager what they recommend because none of our Board members even me! are experts in this field.

In addition, I am thinking that if we have $300,000 extra to spend, let's spend it on installing some of those fabulous new second-generation solar panels on our roofs instead. This rehab will be our only chance to prepare ourselves for the guaranteed future rise in home energy costs. Let's make the most of this opportunity.

****

Footnote 2: Here is my "Open Mike" November 2006 newsletter regarding the rehab:

NOVEMBER 2006 OPEN MIKE
SPECIAL REHAB UPDATE
Contents are the sole responsibility of Jane Stillwater,
Savo Island Cooperative Homes Inc. Shareholder

Just when you thought it couldn't possibly get more juicy here at Savo Island, Board members' conduct surprises even me! In the past two days, I have been told that I was being summoned to yet another executive session (tribal council?); that certain Board members have withheld valuable information from other Board members regarding building siding; that due to what appears to be deliberate Board inaction regarding the rehab, it is now being put off until March 2007; that there is supposed to be another El Nino rainy winter this year; that leaks have already started to afflict some units; and that the only help that the Board can offer residents with leaking roofs is to buy them some buckets.

This month's Board meeting as usual bordered on soap opera. Here's a basic outline of the plot: First I presented the following statement to the Board during the open mike segment:

"In the future, I would like to see members of the Savo Island Board of Directors take a new direction," I said. "I've been coming to Board meetings for 27 years now and I've noticed two patterns which appear to be causing our co-op irreparable damage. I would like to see the Board drop these two patterns and turn in a more positive and productive direction instead before it is too late."

Pattern Number One: From this co-op's very inception, Board member who are untrained amateurs in the field of property management have consistently overridden sound advice and guidance given to them by professionals in this field; licensed and certified professionals with many years of training and experience in helping properties to run smoothly and economically.

In what appears to be an effort to prove that they, amateur Board members, know best, the Savo Island Board of Directors has gone through approximately 12 management companies at an estimated turnover cost to the co-op of $50,000 each in the last 27 years. As a result, the Board now has an extremely poor reputation within the State of California's property management industry.
Had we taken the advice of the John Stewart Company our very first management company and stuck with them all these years, I estimate the co-op would be at least one-half million dollars richer than we are now, and this amount could well be a lot higher. In addition, the co-op wouldn't have been forced into receivership in 1989 for non-payment of taxes.

With regard to the current rehab, according to our project manager who we pay to give us good advice Board members' foot-dragging in the planning and execution of this project may end up costing us over one-half million dollars. The Board now appears to have caused so many delays that Savo may have to re-bid all of its rehab contracts. In addition, the rehab has now been effectively stalled until March, 2007 which means that we will have to endure yet another winter of leaky roofs and the added expenses and inconvenience to residents that this delay will cause.

It's time for Savo Island's Board of Directors to put their egos away, stop trying to interfere in things we know very little about and start listening to the advice and guidance that we pay professionals to give us.

Even though I myself have a Masters degree in housing policy from the University of California at Berkeley, I still try to listen to professionals in the field of property management and to take their advice.

Pattern Number Two: Inconsistency in following co-op bylaws and HUD regulations. The Board needs to be consistent. For instance, the Board needs to stop telling residents who are not on the Board that they cannot have lateral transfers and then turn around and grant lateral transfers to Board members.

The Board also needs to stop saying, "Everything has to come before the Board," with regard to residents but then ignore this policy with regards to themselves and, for example, move Board members and their friends' families into units without the Board's approval or even knowledge. At one point [when the Board was supposed to approve all move-ins no longer true], I only found out that someone's daughter had been moved into a unit when I saw her name on a list of current residents.

The Board also needs to reassess which Board members are under-utilizing their units. We have a two-bedroom unit and a three-bedroom unit coming up for occupancy. In order to be protected against charges of using their Board membership to bypass HUD regulations, Section 8 Board members who are now under-utilizing their units need to voluntarily ask to be downsized. And the Board needs to ask management to look into this issue this week and to act on their findings while these units are still vacant.

Further, the Board needs to get its priorities straight. In the past few months, it has scheduled five (5) special sessions to discuss "personal attacks" but only zero (0) sessions that resulted in having selected building siding so that we can get on with the rehab.

"In summary," I concluded, "the Savo Island Board of Directors needs to stop these two negative patterns as soon as possible and concentrate on governing Savo Island in accordance with our bylaws and HUD regulations instead. Perhaps irreparable damage has not been done and it's still not too late to change for the better."
---
The rest of the November Board meeting went as usual: We got a draft of the minutes of the October meeting, stating that, "A special meeting is being suggested to deal with Jane...Any member of the board that viciously attact [sic] others should be acted upon to stop...I move that Jane be removed from the board...."

A Board member then launched a verbal "personal attack" on one of my children (but nobody except me seemed to mind!) All I can say to that is, "Don't hurt my children." Then this Board member went on to claim that another Savo resident who disagreed with her was mentally unstable urging fellow Board members to report her to the Berkeley mental health mobile crisis unit! The B.M. also revealed confidential information regarding a Savo resident that violated the integrity of the B.M.'s employer's trust in her ability to be descrete about disclosing the contents of its records and files. This B.M. then went on to call our rehab architect, project manager and bank loan supervisor a bunch of "crooks".

Sidebar: It seems funny to me that this Board member is always so eager to criticize others. Remember that time that a SWAT team dragged her boyfriend out of her unit in handcuffs stark naked? No one criticized her! But I digress.

Then two other Board members launched into a passionate plea for us to use wood building siding instead of man-made building siding for the rehab at a cost to Savo of an additional $300,000 more. Fine. Great. Let's vote on it and move on! No vote was taken. However, the Board didn't vote to issue buckets to residents either so that they could get through the upcoming rainy season without being drowned.

I go to these meetings, I listen to what is said and it all sounds like everyone on the Board really knows what they are talking about and that Savo Island is in really good hands. But, after 27 years of attending these meetings, I have noticed another underlying pattern that the Board members are always on the attack; attacking everything from myself to the annual meeting schedule, the rehab, whoever is the current management company, our maintenance department and our residents purely for the sake of attacking. If you listen to a meeting tape from 15 years ago, you would think that you were listening to this month's meeting tape. The people are the same. The attack mode is the same. If we are ever going to get Savo Island into a more pro-active mode, we need a whole new Board!

If all goes according to our much-ignored bylaws, Board elections should be held in the last part of January (January 21, 2007 is the date that I propose). Please come out and vote for new Board members (and me) -- and run for the Board yourself! Let's change the tone of these meetings once and for all. We can do this.

For some reason I was not informed of, the scheduled post-meeting (fifth) executive session to accuse me of "personal attacks" was not held and the Board meeting was adjourned. I then went home and watched a videotape of that evening's episode of "Survivor". Boy, could I identify with the poor schmucks who were forced to attend tribal council!

 

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Stillwater is a freelance writer who hates injustice and corruption in any form but especially injustice and corruption paid for by American taxpayers. She has recently published a book entitled, "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips For Touring (more...)
 

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