The residents of the Venetian Gardens public housing project face a bigger enemy than Newt Gingrich and his anti-welfare schemes. It is a mysterious force that has put them into debt, threatened them with eviction, and forced them into battle against Metro-Dade's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Now their attorney, Barbara Goolsby of Legal Services of Greater Miami, says a lawsuit may be necessary to rectify the problems.
The likely culprit? The "flapper" in their toilet tanks.
Since mid-1993, at least half the tenants in the 52-unit complex on 161st Street just north of the Opa-locka Airport have been receiving astronomical water bills A sometimes up to $600 per quarter. When they were unable to come up with the money, some had their water shut off by the Water and Sewer Department. Fed up with that inconvenience and fearing they might be evicted for failing to pay their utility bills, they went to Goolsby, who hired a plumber to probe their pipes. He concluded that the residents' toilets had been fitted with the wrong flappers, causing them to run constantly. (A rubber stopper attached to a hinge, the flapper lifts to release water when the toilet is flushed, then settles back into place to allow the tank to refill for the next flush.)
"I was banking on the ability to solve this with common sense and a couple of flappers," says Goolsby, who has devoted dozens of hours to interviewing and advising the tenants, corresponding with county agencies, and calling in the plumber. "But the problem hasn't gone away."
County housing officials claim they didn't know about widespread tenant complaints until Legal Services brought the matter to their attention late last year. They also say any potty problems plaguing Venetian Gardens residents were solved in January, when HUD maintenance staffers finished installing the proper flappers. (HUD is responsible for attending to matters such as plumbing malfunctions if tenants report them.) This past week, in response to inquiries from New Times, HUD sent out workers to check the bathrooms in two of the units where tenants were still complaining about continuously running water. "There's no leakage in the toilets," reports Mary Keller, executive assistant to the HUD director, after having the toilets checked.
That response comes as a big surprise to Joann Kelly, who has lived at Venetian Gardens with her three children since 1987. Kelly has been hit with exorbitant bills for a year and a half, starting with a $249 statement in July 1993. (According to HUD, Kelly's quarterly bill should average $40; she gets an equivalent subsidy in the form of a monthly rent deduction.) She says she complained to the apartment's managers and asked to be reimbursed, but even though the housing project's maintenance unit sent out plumbers, the situation worsened: In January she received a bill totaling $638 for the previous three months. (She did, however, receive a modest reimbursement in 1993.)
Kelly says she is usually able to ward off the water department by making partial payments A she is now paying off her bill at the rate of $50 per month A but her water has been shut off a few times nonetheless. "I'm scared they're going to turn it off," she says. "I have a hard time keeping it paid. I can't give my children money and I have to buy cheaper food." (Kelly reports that HUD workers finally fixed the toilets properly when they visited this past week.)
As the water department sees it, the toilets are most likely to blame. In December inspectors from the utility visited the housing project and found no evidence of leakage at the meters. "That's probably where the water went A down the toilet," asserts customer service manager Doug Nevins.
Befitting the world of government, county housing officials have an Alice-in-Wonderland explanation for the billing woes of Kelly and her neighbors: They simply haven't requested a reimbursement, or haven't done so by filing the appropriate paperwork. (But administrators also say that four tenants have received HUD reimbursement payments over the past two years.) Furthermore, the housing project's site manager,Geraldine West, says only a few tenants complained about high water bills prior to last fall, when one victim led a door-to-door campaign and signed up two dozen fellow Venetian Gardeners to ask Legal Services for assistance.
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Then again, when it comes to maintenance issues, the housing department's record is open to question: Dade County HUD was sued by the State Attorney's Office in 1987 to remedy slum conditions, and was officially ranked by the federal government as a "troubled housing authority" until three years ago.
Still, Mary Keller insists there's been no bureaucratic runaround. "If the tenants have a problem because we didn't fix something in a timely manner," the HUD executive assistant promises, we make sure that their [utility] payments are corrected."
Barbara Goolsby says she will be negotiating with HUD to make sure that happens. If it doesn't, she is prepared to file a lawsuit. As one Venetian Gardens resident, Patrice Phillips, puts it: "We were totally ignored by Dade County [HUD] and Water and Sewer." In the past nine months, adds Phillips, who works part-time as a cook for Dade County Schools, she has paid A yes, paid A more than $1000 in water bills.
And to top it all off, she notes, "The toilet's still running.