June 7, 2012
The complaint of many public housing residents in Charlottesville is that they are paying too much for their electric bills. They are now taking this issue to Federal Court.
Residents say they’re paying maybe $20 or $25 more a month on those electric bills than they should be. Though that may not sound like much, for low-income city residents, those numbers add up. These residents are hoping to stop what they call excessive charges.
Westhaven resident Janyce Lewis is one of seven suing the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“It’s called low-income housing. So there should not be an excess electric bill that’s just about as much as the rent,” said Lewis.
Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center is representing seven named plaintiffs and all residents of public housing in the federal lawsuit. It argues the city is overcharging residents on utilities. A federal regulation says for public housing purposes low-income residents should put 30 percent of their income toward rent and basic utilities like electric.
“I don’t think they’re evil; I think they’re just feckless in doing this. They’ve got a lot of burdens in running the place and this is one they’ve ignored and realized this was a past problem,” said John Conover, Attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center.
After a federal regulation the city started following in 2003, local governments could charge public housing residents 30 percent of their income to pay for rent and basic utilities like electric. The suit alleges the city has charged more acquiring more than $400,000 in excess fees since 2003. Lewis says that a couple of people have lost their homes for not being able to pay their excess electric bills.
“It takes away from your grocery bill, it takes away from gas putting in the car, or even catching city transportation. It just cuts a lot of extra things in your household that you really need for everyday survival,” said Lewis.
Lewis herself had to take out a payday loan just to get by.
“They are a trap; it’s a trap. But what other choice do I have? [My choices are] to either be evicted or go and find some means to pay this excess electric,” said Lewis.
With the suit, the plaintiffs representing the 271 public housing units in Charlottesville just want some relief.
“I’m just going to keep my head up and think positive and just realize they are people just like I’m people and just hope this can be resolved and not go any farther,” said Lewis.
CBS19 reached out to the Redevelopment and Housing Authority and its Board and have received no comment from them. The authority has one month to file a response to the lawsuit.