When Joyce Lacovara moved into an apartment above a Northwest delicatessen, the constant smell of toasted rolls and hot pastrami seemed like an attractive feature, but in six months Lacovara learned that her association with the deli went beyond sharing aromas -- they shared the same gas furnace and she was paying the bills.
She now owes the Washington Gas Company more than $1,000 in overdue heating bills that she said she can't afford to pay.
Lacovara, who began a new job yesterday as a messenger for a local courier company, said the gas company had threatened to turn off the gas and she may be forced to move unless "someone else takes responsibility for this mistake.
"I paid the first two bills when I was working . . . they were high," said Lacovara, 29, who lives at 1400 Perry St. "But I lost my job since then and the bills that came afterwards were ridiculous. I knew something was wrong."
Lacovara has complained to everyone about the problem with no success. Her landlady told her the problem had been corrected. The deli operators said they don't know anything about the problem.
The gas company said it is not their problem and has given her an additional 30 days to pay all the back bills or face a shutoff of the gas.
Lacovara said she will generally earn less than $800 a month and can't pay off the overdue bills plus $350 a month in rent and her other bills.
"I paid $700 to get the key to this apartment and I was told then by the Realtor that there were two separate gas meters," she said with a hint of frustration. "So now that I have proven that they lied to me, why do I have to suffer?"
She realized she had a problem after she received a $400 bill in late January. Lacovara called the gas company and asked for an inspection.
The inspectors confirmed that the building had only one furnace and it heated both stories. But she was receiving the entire bill.
Since that inspection Lacovara received a February bill for $400.
John Su and his wife, who rent the deli, said that they "did not have anything to do with the problem." Su said that he pays rent and he pays his own gas bill.
According to the gas company, Su's gas bill includes a gas hot water heater and his gas stove but not the furnace.
Su said that he would not share payment of the furnace bill with Lacovara because he did not ask for gas heat although the radiators in the deli were warm.
The building's owner, Helen Kim, who owns another store in Capitol Heights, Md., said she thought she had solved the problem before Lacovara moved in. Kim said she hired someone to turn off all the gas heat to the deli.
Since the problem remains she said, "The people who run the deli should pay for half the bill . . . since they used the heat."
Lacovara said, "Everyone advises me to stop paying my rent, pay the bill instead and then take her [Kim] to small claims court. But I'm afraid that I'm going to lose my home, my credit, and possibly my job. I think I'm in a lot of trouble. I need someone to help me out of this mess."