Sunday, March 15, 2009

The special "Ugly Betty" issue of my housing co-op's newsletter

Photos are of baby Mena inspecting Savo Island's run-down facilities -- while taking her first steps.

Here's the plot of one of the latest episodes of the TV show Ugly Betty: Its filthy-rich co-editor Willamina Slater takes off her chinchilla coat, deigns to ride a bus in New York City and goes off to a government hearing to ask for bailout money for Mode magazine. That reminds me of the actions of most of the board members at my housing co-op. They too are busy asking for bailout money.

Savo Island Cooperative Homes, Inc. is located in Berkeley, CA -- which is definitely a high-rent city. The rents may not be as high as what Willamina pays for her penthouse in Manhattan but Berkeley's rents are definitely up there. The average rent for a three-bedroom apartment here is currently $2,475 a month.

When Savo was built back in 1979, the whole idea behind this HUD project was to provide housing for low-income working-class families, seniors, the disabled and homeless families -- people who might otherwise not be able to afford to live in Berkeley. The place was designed specifically to "racially and economically integrate the neighborhood" by offering Section 8 rent subsidies.

And then the "Willaminas" of Savo Island -- those tenants who pay market rate rents instead of getting HUD subsidies because their income is too high to qualify for Section 8 -- took control of our board of directors. And then Savo's whole reason for being became toast.

From approximately 1996 onward, the sole apparent purpose of Savo Island's board of directors has been to keep market-rate rents here down. And our board has succeeded admirably at this task -- even if it meant that our housing project is now almost bankrupt, very few repairs have been made and the re-hab has already been put off for eight long hard years and there is still no sign of it commencing any time soon.

In 2001, the average Berkeley rent for a three-bedroom apartment was $1,872. At that time, market-rate board members here paid only $933 per month. That's a savings to them of $939 a month -- or $11,268 for the year, paid for by US taxpayers instead of them.

In 2007, the average rent for this area was $2,852. Market-rate board members paid $1,408 per month, saving themselves $1,444 per month, even after the board had been harassed by HUD for years to raise Savo's rents in order to pay for much-needed repairs and also for the re-hab that was badly needed because basic repairs hadn't been done for approximately a decade and a half.

In 2007 alone, the rent savings for market-rate board members came to $17,328.

Neither Wilhelmina nor I have access to all the rent data for the city of Berkeley over the past nine years but, based on rough approximations, it appears that serving on the Savo Island board of directors has saved every market-rate board member approximately $86,000 each between 2001 and now.

But why am I telling you this? Am I hinting that a handful of Savo board members got a bailout at the rest of the residents' expense? Yeah. And am I also suggesting that, with the 2009 board member elections already past due, other residents should run for the board so that they too might be in a position to receive tens of thousands of dollars in government bailouts? Ugly Betty would never do that! And neither would I.

What I am suggesting, however, is that it might be a really good idea for us to put some pressure on the current board members to actually HOLD the freaking election -- it should be held immediately -- and to also pass a new bylaw stating that board members can only be allowed to serve two consecutive terms at a time.

PS: On June 30, 2009, Savo will be getting its fourteenth -- or is it fifteenth? -- new management company, thanks to our current board of directors, who keeps firing companies that disagree with them. And exactly what management company worth its salt WOULD agree with a policy that causes Savo Island to lose approximately $89,000 per market rate unit? Not only that, but because $86,000 per unit wasn't coming in from the Section 8 units either, Savo also lost approximately $1,892,000 in revenue from all 22 of its three-bedroom units since 2001 -- on this board's watch.

Ugly is as ugly does.

PPS: Whatever happened to our re-hab? Nobody seems to know. It has now been eight long years since the re-hab plans first were put on the table. And I still think that the board may be blocking the re-hab in order to tear down our garden apartments and build high-rises instead. Don't do that! Why not? Because if the economy keeps getting worse, we may need our open space to grow cash crops!

PPPS: Do you know what the number one cash crop in California is right now? Take a guess.