The District of Columbia, burdened with ever-increasing utility costs in the operation of its public housing units, last month began to impose a surcharge on the low income residents for their freezers, clothes dryers, air conditioners, and extra refrigerators.
Welvin Goodwin, of the city's property management administration, said $12,307 was collected last month. That amount he said, is a "small portion" of the total expected to pour in after the city gets a more complete record of who owns extra appliances.
Goodwins said he had been in some of the city's 11,900 units where the owners had as many as three or four refrigerators and freezers. Utility costs have "skyrocketed," he said. At the end of the last fiscal year, total utility costs - water, fuel, gas, electricity, and labor too maintain such things as boilers - accounted for about $11.5 million out of the city's $22 million operating budget for public housing managment, he said, The previous year, the figure had been about $7 million, he said.
Now, if a resident has a non frost free freezer in his home, he is charged an extra a frost free freezer; $7; a dryer, $4; an air conditioner during the summer months, $17; a frost-free refrigerator other than the one provided by the city, $8; and one that is nonfrost free costs $3, Goodwin said.
While the extra electricity charges are not astronomical, several public housing residents interviewed at the Capitol View Plaza complex on East Capitol Street at the District-Maryland line said yesterday that the new costs are just something else to add to their list of things they don't like about the project.
They were without cooking gas for a month recently and some of the homes have been flooded from broken water pipes they said. For people on fixed incomes, anything that costs money is a problem, they said.
Delores Proctor, who lives at Capitol View Plaza, said her son came into the house one day in August and told her, "Guess what, Mom, we have to pay for the freezer." She said she looked at her compact freezer sitting unused with no food in it and told her son, "Plug it in. I'm not paying for something I'm not using."
Proctor said she bought the freezer eight or nine years ago on sale for $169 because the freezer at the top of refigerator didn't hold enough to feed her family of nine children.
Proctor said it's already "killing me" having nine children, five living at home on $9,000 a year. She pays $140 a month for her four-bedroom home.
Another resident complained that the city is charging the same for the appliances no matter how large they are or how often one uses them. She said she pays the same for her small, seldom-used dryer as someone who has a high-powered one.
The woman, who declined to give her name, said she would afford the surcharge by cutting down on something else. She said she bought her $189 freezer with the help of the credit union where she works.
Another resident said the new policy means that if she wants to buy an air conditioner next summer, "I'll think about it twice."
City housing officials said they have a study under way to determine if installing individual meters on all public housing units is feasible. Freeman Hair, deputy administrator of property management administration for the city, said it appears at this point that it will be possible, at least on the townhouse-style units.
Some units already are individually metered, and some public housing families who pay their own utilities are given a reduction in rent based on "reasonable" use, city housing officials said.
"We want to get out of the utility business," Hair said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked public housing officials throughout the nation to study whether individual meters can be used to monitor the use of utilities. They would replace the master meters used in many projects "to support national energy conservation goals," according to Edward Whipple, chief of the rental and occupancy branch of HUD's office of housing.