The Quality of Life Forum at the El Campanil Theatre focused mostly on problems with renters and landlords in Antioch, especially those in government-subsidized housing known as Section 8. Many feel that the system is too generous and rife with abuse.
"We need to move away from socialism," said one speaker, who also used a bovine expletive - commonly used to mean totally untrue or unjust - to describe the subsidizing of renters in his neighborhood of $900,000 houses when he's had to work long and hard to buy such a house.
When Mark Stephenson of the County Housing Authority told him, "You're totally blessed that you can have a house there," the audience hooted, and expressed their feelings that the speaker was being patronized.
"Hold it! Hold it!" urged Mayor Don Freitas. "Let Mr. Stephenson speak."
Stephenson and the housing authority, which administers Section 8 housing subsidies, were roundly roasted by various speakers for not caring and not taking action to deal with problem tenants and landlords.
On the defensive for most of the forum, Stephenson's statements varied from acknowledging that mistakes had been made to saying that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have to acknowledging that they could stand to improve.
"Doublespeak," Devi Lanphere, CEO and president of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce, termed his responses.
"We've seen bureaucratic dancing from you," said resident Terry Ramus, who pressed Stephenson to come up with an action plan.
Stephenson said he would do that within a week, adding that his office now has access to a federal database that will let it find hidden income if a Section 8 recipient has such. The Antioch office of the housing authority will remain open, he said.
"We'll see some people coming off the program," he said.
That assurance spoke to the concerns of many of the speakers, who were concerned not only with blight, but also with abuses of the system.
One speaker wanted to know if there is a limit to how many people are allowed to live in a single-family house. That led to a request to define "family." City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland said that under California law, the city could not legally define "family." Freitas pointed out that misbehavior could be addressed, not what constituted a family.
"It should be a hand up, not a handout," said City Councilman Jim Davis. The thrust of remarks from the public agreed with that and supported helping people in need, but objected to people being subsidized indefinitely.
And the amount of the rent subsidy was also questioned. Stephenson said that there is no limit on the value of the house being rent-subsidized, there is only a limit on the rents, which are based on the market rate in the area.
Councilman Jim Conley said that rents are lower in East County, so holders of Section 8 vouchers are moving here to get a better house.
"You shouldn't get a putting green and a pool" as part of your hand up, said Councilman Brian Kalinowski. In a related matter, he and the rest of the council argued against East County being required to supply a disproportionate share of the county's low and middle income housing.
In regard to crime, one speaker was very blunt.
"Anybody who says there's no connection between Section 8 housing and crime has lost their mind," said Gary Gilbert, founder of the local community activist group United Citizens for Better Neighborhoods (UCBN).
In a presentation on what actions have been taken since the city's previous forum in July, Police Chief Jim Hyde said the department has formed a Community Action Team (CAT). It has had 40 cases assigned to it having to do with crime and blight in rental housing so far.
Fourteen of those cases have been referred to the housing authority, seven are set for revocation hearings, and 14 letters have been sent to landlords of problem rentals. There also have been 31 arrests - about half of them relating to Section 8 - and 50 citations.
Applause greeted his announcement that the department is enforcing the juvenile curfew law, which is effective at 11 p.m., and that it has recently made 17 arrests. The Police Activities League (PAL) is starting up, and a peer court for juvenile offenders is being planned. He also has asked the Antioch Unified School District to hire more security guards.
Hyde said the department will have an interactive Web site for citizens to report crime. The city Web site now has a map showing what crimes are being reported where. As of Tuesday, the latest map was for July.
Denise Skaggs, who is in charge of city code enforcement, said her department is still stretched thin, but they are in the process of hiring two additional officers, which should be done before Oct. 1.
She and Ron Bernal, an assistant city engineer, outlined a rental inspection program that the city aims to have operating in the spring. It will work with landlords to make sure properties are properly maintained and will institute fines where corrective action is not taken.
Stephenson said the city's inspection program for all rentals is an excellent idea.
There were complaints against both the housing authority and the city about failure to acknowledge or return phone calls. When a speaker asked whom to call about lack of response from the city, Freitas said, "Call me."
Robert Martin said he owns rental properties and wants to know how much the rental inspection program will cost his tenants, because "I pass it on to them." He also said that landlords should be required to pay for garbage collection and water in order to be certain that all residences have those services. He was applauded when he said he inspects his properties twice a month.
Near the end of the discussion, Larry Bienati, who had been hired by the city to facilitate the meeting, said to the residents, "The housing authority is ready to walk with you."
A speaker who had called for action, said, "We are a sleeping giant who is being awakened."