Reassessing the Housing Authority

Recent tenant complaints about treatment by the Alameda Housing Authority has prompted calls for great civic oversight.


Photo by Steven Tavares

The pungent odor in Arminda Graca’s former apartment on Sherman Street still pervades the living room. Linoleum in the adjacent kitchen space is warped from a massive water leak that flowed from a broken toilet upstairs, which occurred last October. The smell in her son’s upstairs bedroom is even worse, a rotten, woody, mildewy stench that blasts your senses. Graca, a Section 8 recipient, was moved next door by the Alameda Housing Authority, which owns and maintains the building. But the move did not occur until roughly six months after the leak and months after she ripped into the floor boards to discover sheetrock significantly weakened by water damage and furiously growing black mold.

The Housing Authority cleaned the mold after she moved out, and the apartment’s windows have since been left open for months to allow the residual odor to dissipate — a bit. “Imagine what it smelled like nine months ago,” Graca said during a recent visit with a reporter. But she and her two children were subjected to the mold for months, despite complaining repeatedly to authority employees. “They told me, ‘Don’t worry. It’s healthy mold.’”

Graca, who already suffered from asthma from time to time, said she began having medical issues that her doctor told her was likely caused by her home’s air quality. “I have all the hospital records,” Graca said. “All the medicines I took. I couldn’t breathe in there.” Family members and a friend of her son who briefly stayed in Graca’s apartment all had health issues following their visits. After moving out, Graca said her lungs have greatly improved.

After repeated complaints, the Housing Authority had the unit tested. The report finished last March found “generally good indoor air-quality conditions,” but recommended water damage in the living room be abated. The upstairs bedroom, however, was not studied by the air-quality analyst, Graca said, despite the smell in that area being the foulest in the unit.

After months of wrangling with Housing Authority officials, Graca said one employee leveled with her. “You’re on Section 8. You can’t expect the best conditions.” The comment floored Graca. “I didn’t know what to say.” She said an authority maintenance worker called her “cuckoo.”

“Maybe I am cuckoo after smelling all those fumes and cleaning chemicals,” she joked. But she said the sad truth is that the Housing Authority used to be far more helpful for renters such as herself. “They’ve taken their positions to their head now,” she said. “They treat us like garbage. They treat us like guinea pigs.” Graca’s future in the new unit is uncertain, she said. The Housing Authority gave her a notice to vacate the unit by year’s end.

In addition to Graca’s experience, other reports of alleged mistreatment of Section 8 tenants have come to light, the Alameda Renters Coalition said. The case of Barbara Johnson, a senior resident whose Section 8 voucher was revoked by the Housing Authority, followed the eviction by a private landlord of an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor named Musiy Rishin. The latter story attracted worldwide attention when it was reported in U.S.-based edition of The Guardian.

Last month, members of the Alameda Renters Coalition held a rally inside the Housing Authority’s offices to demand answers from its executive director, Vanessa Cooper, on behalf of Johnson. Catherine Pauling, a longtime member of the Alameda Renters Coalition, said the Housing Authority had previously lodged concerns about Johnson’s upkeep of her apartment. Johnson, who uses an electric wheelchair to get around, disputes the authority’s interpretation of her unit’s condition. “The apartment is not messy, but because she uses an electric wheelchair to move around the apartment, it’s how she is able to track her belongings,” Pauling said. The Housing Authority wants to move Johnson to a group home in Hayward that likely means Johnson will not be able to take most of her belongings to the new place, they said. “She will be trapped with nowhere to go,” Pauling said. “It’s cruel; it’s a death sentence. We have no idea what will happen to her.”

The Alameda Renters Coalition’s sudden appearance at the Housing Authority’s offices appeared to catch the personnel off-guard. An employee sought to limit the number of advocates accompanying Johnson with executive director Cooper and later asked those people to sign a waiver, despite Johnson verbally approving their presence at the meeting. A Housing Authority representative later asked whether there were any attorneys in the room. Almost one hour later, Johnson and her advocates were told Cooper was unable to meet with them that day. “This happens all the time,” said Bunny Duncan, a member of the coalition. “They want time to figure out what lies they want to tell us.”

Cooper could not be reached for an interview before this story went to press.

 That the Housing Authority is under scrutiny is not surprising since the city and region is in the midst of a severe housing crunch. But critics, including Graca, the Renters Coalition, and a growing number of Alameda elected officials say the authority lacks accountability. Earlier this decade, as a cost-savings measure, the city eliminated City Hall oversight of the authority, leaving it with a degree of autonomy rare for an Alameda city agency. The mayor appoints members to the Housing Authority’s board, with approval of the city council. The arrangement, though, has caused the Housing Authority to become unresponsive to renters and unanswerable to complaints, critics contend.

Graca was frustrated by repeated calls to the Housing Authority about the mold in her unit and what she called rude behavior by some maintenance workers who were called to the apartment. After some agency employees repeatedly denied making specific statements to her, she said she started recording their conversations. Graca’s annoyance led her to reach out to other Alameda government entities, but she said she got the run-around. “I went to Code Enforcement; they wouldn’t touch it,” Graca said. “I went to City Hall. I even went to the former mayor for help. There’s a whole lot of people who don’t want to touch it because of the Housing Authority.”

In response to the Rishin eviction, the city council passed an urgency ordinance that added just-cause renters protections to Section 8 tenants in Alameda. But more legislation could be on the horizon in the coming months. During a city council meeting in early September, Councilman Jim Oddie raised the possibility of bringing the Housing Authority back under the fold of the city — perhaps under the supervision of the council, the city manager’s office, or both. “I’m concerned that renters are being mistreated,” Oddie said in an interview. “What bothers me is there is no accountability to an elected official. The thing that I hate the most is to tell a constituent that I can’t do anything to help.”

Such criticism is not new. In 2016, former Alameda councilman Frank Matarrese raised questions about the Authority’s accountability in the midst of the on-going housing crisis. He sought to get the city council to ask the city staff to study whether to return the Housing Authority to City Hall supervision. But his request went nowhere, and he now regrets not doing more. “The Housing Authority is the best vehicle for creating affordable housing that we have,” Matarrese said. “We can’t count on developers to do the job. We have to get the council back as the governing body. The Housing Authority needs a direct line to city authority.”

Matarrese is straightforward about the current state of the Housing Authority. “It’s not what it used to be,” he said.