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City housing residents sue for trash-collection back payments

March 21, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Thousands of people living in Los Angeles city housing may have been billed for garbage pickup going back decades, even though the city was supposed to be paying.

Every week, the garbage trucks come to the Mar Vista Gardens housing development. And every month the residents there get a Department of Water and Power bill for the service.

According to one non-profit group, he only problem is that the more than 6,000 families who live in Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) homes are not supposed to be paying those bills. The Housing Authority is supposed to, but has been billing residents for sanitation services.

"What they've done is essentially overcharge. Every tenant's rent was $24 higher than it should have been. It's an additional charge that's been tacked on to their rent," said Navneet Grewal, a Western Center on Law and Poverty housing attorney.

Grewal says HACLA residents have been essentially double-billed for decades, perhaps as far back as 1983. When the Western Center on Law and Poverty attorneys pointed out the problem to HACLA, they say the city agreed to stop charging residents for sanitation services from now on.

As for all the money residents may have paid into the system before this? Eyewitness News was going to ask HACLA about that, but messages and phone calls were not returned.

Attorneys for the residents say HACLA has refused to refund any of the previous sanitation charges, which they estimate are well over $15 million. So they filed a class action lawsuit against the city Wednesday.

"It ends up costing a lot of money for no reason, to force the tenants to have to go into federal court just to get the back rent back in their pockets," said Lynn Martinez, Western Center on Law and Poverty managing attorney/senior litigator.

"That $24 is like a million dollars to me," said resident Emma Gullette.

Gullette is one of the residents who's hoping to see a refund. She suspects she's been overpaying for more than 35 years.

"I need my money back," said Gullette. "I don't need the government hanging on to my money."

"People with fixed incomes like me, we are not able to pay," said resident Marco Galindo.

Attorneys say quick refunds are unlikely, and that going through the courts will take time.

But in the meantime, the residents are planning to protest outside of Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles headquarters Thursday morning.

The city of Los Angeles says the trash fee is included in the bill residents receive from LADWP. HACLA does not serve as an intermediary role as it relates to trash-collection fees.

HACLA released a statement Wednesday: "When it came to the agency's attention that the charge had become a burden for tenants the agency made inquiries to the Department of Housing and Urban Development about whether the trash collection fee could be counted as part of the allowable utility allowance. Once HUD approved a rent allowance we immediately implemented a lease change that since February covers the full cost of trash."


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