July 22, 2018
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Bangor Housing Authority faces heating surcharge suit

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Two women who live in public housing have sued the Bangor Housing Authority over the way it imposed surcharges for heating oil last winter. The lawsuit, filed Nov. 7 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, is seeking class-action status to cover the more than 440 tenants who live in authority-owned housing.

The complaint alleges that BHA and its executive director, Elsie Coffey violated federal regulations set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development when it imposed the surcharges.

The housing authority declined Thursday to comment on the lawsuit, which is still being reviewed.

Dates for motions or a hearing in the case have not been set. BHA has 20 days to respond to the complaint after it is received.

HUD regulations state that the most public housing tenants should pay in rent is 30 percent of their monthly adjusted income. Rent includes a “reasonable amount” for the use of utilities.

In April, Melissa Seidell was charged an additional $118 and Amanda Black was charged more than $360 for what BHA called excessive use of fuel oil last season. Both women live on the same street in the Capehart area of Bangor, according to the lawsuit.

Black and Seidell had complained to BHA about heating problems in their apartments last year but BHA failed to takes steps to remedy the problems, the lawsuit alleges. Both women were granted hearings by BHA over the surcharges. The hearing board rejected their complaints, according to the lawsuit.

Portland attorney Rufus Brown along with Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta group that represents low-income residents, filed the lawsuit. Brown said Thursday that he did not know how widespread the use of a fuel surcharge in public housing might be around the state or if other housing authorities might be violating HUD regulations.

“One of the most important things for the judge to consider is that with the surcharge, they were charged for consumption that was beyond their control,” he said. “They were not informed about how much oil they had consumed in the past. If they had been informed as they went along about how much oil they were using, they might have been able to take steps to conserve oil.”

Brown said that one easy solution would be for a copy of a receipt or ticket be left with tenants by the person delivering oil. He said that so far the housing authority had refused to take that step.

“It’s pretty clear the law’s been violated here,” Brown said.

The lawsuit is asking a federal judge to:

— Issue an injunction to prevent the housing authority from using the same allegedly illegal criteria during the current heating season.

— Reimburse the women and other tenants who paid the surcharge during the last heating season.

— Declare that the practices used by BHA violated the women’s and other tenants’ property rights under the due process clause of the Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

— Order the housing authority to pay the defendants’ legal fees.

Regulations require that housing authorities give tenants a 60-day notice that surcharges will be imposed during a heating season, according to the lawsuit. Housing authorities also must tell tenants that they have a 30-day window on which to comment on the proposed surcharges.

A letter dated Oct. 28 and sent by BHA to tenants was filed with the complaint in federal court in Bangor. The letter states that surcharges will be imposed beginning on Dec. 1 if tenants’ unit consumption exceeds the average number of gallons for its size and location. The averages are not for specific addresses but for two-, three- or four-bedroom units on either the end or the interior of buildings.

The lawsuit states that surcharges for excessive consumption of utilities, according to HUD regulations, should be limited things that are within control of the household such as whether during the winter windows are open or the thermostat is set at unreasonably high levels.

Other factors that HUD regulations state should be considered before imposing surcharges for excessive consumption of utilities, according to the lawsuit, include:

— Temperature levels to be maintained during the day and night, in cold and warm weather, along with the physical condition of the building.

— The historic consumption data from actual units used to establish utility allowances using a three-year rolling base, as an example, as well as an assessment that the statistical data are valid.

— A review of allowances annually to determine whether they need to be revised to remain consistent with HUD regulations.

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