In June, Dorothea Ferrell disconnected her washing machine and extinguished the pilot light on her furnace in a frantic attempt to reduce her mounting gas bills. Despite her efforts, her August bill totaled $128, the September bill was $86 and the October bill $72 for her three-bedroom apartment in the Barry Farms public housing complex in Anacostia.
Ferrell is among the lucky ones. She has managed to pay her bills. The Washington Gas Light Co. is cutting service to a growing number of her neighbors who got behind in their payments that averaged up to $100 a month in the summer and up to $300 in the winter. By comparison, the gas company estimates that the average heating and cooking bill for a four-bedroom house from October through March would be $675, or $112 a month, according to company spokesman Tom Julia.
Cynthia Prince, another Barry Farms resident, has been without gas for more than a month because she is unable to pay an accumulated bill of more than $600. Prince heats her apartment with a space heater and cooks on a set of hot plates. She attributed the high gas bills to her children coming and going from the outside and the poor condition of her unit.
"My windows are broken. The windows come down at the top, and I call the rental office, but they don't do anything about it," she said.
Washington Gas Light refused to disclose the number of Barry Farms customers whose service had been disconnected, but tenants at the dilapidated 42-year-old housing complex say the problem is widespread.
Barry Farms, a dreary collection of boxlike cement buildings containing 444 units and hidden away between St. Elizabeths Hospital and the Suitland Parkway, has been scheduled for a long-delayed multimillion-dollar renovation.
Some tenants said they had been forced to move, while others turned their gas off during the summer to pay bills that became delinquent during the winter.
Sarah Ann Hyde, 70, left Barry Farms in October partially because of her gas bills, which totaled $176 for August. "It was terrible," Hyde said. "I didn't do any cooking in that time. No more than Sunday and weekends. There wasn't anybody to take a bath but myself."
In the meantime, "We don't have any insulation," said Ferrell, who is also president of the Barry Farms Residents' Council. "The windows were put in wrong. All your heat just seeps right out."
Barry Farms, one of the city's 52 public housing projects with a total of 12,000 apartments, is among several projects where the tenants are having difficulty paying their gas bills.
Bernice Redd, a resident Capitol View town houses just off East Capitol Street and Southern Avenue, reported that her gas bills average $200 to $300 in the winter and up to $70 a month in the summer.
The town houses are only 14 years old, Redd said, but are not energy efficient. "The house is so cold because we don't have any insulation. In our particular case, we have to turn the thermostat up to 90 degrees just to get the heat to come on," she said.
About 3,800 public housing tenants have individual furnaces and hot-water heaters in their apartments and pay their own utility bills. In the rest of the apartments, the heat and hot water come from a central system and the utility bills are paid by the city, which is the landlord for public housing.
Public housing residents are restricted by federal law from paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities. If the utility bills are more than a tenant's rent, then the rent is reduced by that amount. If the bills are unusually large, tenants can receive rent credits, which are the difference between their monthly rent and their utility bills.
About 300 tenants pay no rent or receive rent credits because of this so-called "utility allowance," said Jo Fisher-Hall, the District's deputy administrator for public housing. The allowance varies depending on the age of the project and its energy efficiency.
Until this year, the federal government required that housing agencies install individual meters when projects were renovated so that tenants would pay for their own utilities. New regulations simply require that renovations include making units energy efficient, but the installation of the individual meters is left to the discretion of the local public housing agencies, federal housing officials said.
The Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS) sued the city housing department in 1982 for failing to correctly compute the amount of the rent deductions resulting from utility payments.
Legal Services argued that because of the errors, tenants were overcharged as much as $360 per family, according to the suit.
The city, which argued it did not have the money to allow the correct deductions, must now determine how much tenants were overcharged and report to the court next week, said Lynn Cunningham, the NLS attorney.
Cunningham attacked the policy of having tenants pay their own utilities. "Personally, I think it stinks. . . . The idea is to transfer the costs of energy to the tenants, who are least able to bear them," he said.