Consumers who want to complain to the Department of Housing and Urban Development may be pleased by a proposal from the department's office of neighborhoods, voluntary associations and consumer protection. The office has urged HUD to install a toll-free phone line in one of the agency's area offices for a trial period.
The line would be open to anyone in that area wishing to call the office to complain or to inquire about programs.
The idea has been received favorably within HUD, but there still are problems to be ironed out before the line is set up, an industry publication, Housing & Development Reporter, recently noted.
The pilot project needs to be widely advertised, but not so widely as to flood the selected area office with calls that fall outside HUD's jurisdiction, a spokesman in the agency's public affairs department said.
The area office that gets the toll-free line also must have a sufficient number of trained staff to answer calls. The same HUD official commented: "If the lines are installed, people who are knowledgeable about the department's programs will be needed."
The program would be assessed six months after it begins operation, several HUD officials said, and then could be expanded nationwide if it is shown to be successful.
The new line is unlikely to be set up before October, a HUD official in the public affairs department said.
The area office that will set up the line has not yet been chosen but it is virtually certain that it will not be the Washington area office, an official in the consumer complaints division of HUD's consumer affairs department said.
The official added that the idea for a toll-free phone had been around for about a year but had been given added impetus by suggestions elicted from the public after HUD published its plans for a consumer program in the Federal Register.
The government as yet has compiled little information on the availability of toll-free phones for consumer complaints or requests for information from Federal agencies.
The White House consumer affairs department is now using summer interns to draw up a comprehensive list of the services. An official from this department, quoting from a Ralph Nadar Public Citizen sheet headed "Toll-free hotlines" said that there were 18 listed on the sheet ranging from the National Runaway hotline to one for Consumer Products Safety to HUD's fair housing and equal opportunities line.
"I don't know if the (HUD hotlines) have been too well manned," said Al Ripskis, editor of Impact, a gadfly publication often critical of HUD actions.
He said the new suggestion "sounds more like a PR gimmick," but conceded that "it's probably worthwhile."
"It's what they do with the complaints -- that's a factor," Ripskis said. "HUD doesn't have a hell of a good track record on those lines." He alleged that the agency had been accused for years of failing to respond adequately to complaints.
Ripskis said he was sceptical about the value of an agency investigating complaints about itself: "It's usually a whitewash."
HUD now receives complaints from all over the country by letter and telephone about problems ranging from rent increases to construction difficulties to long waiting lists for subsidized housing, said an official in the HUD complaints department in Washington who asked not to be named.
Nationwide the department handles an estimated 28,000 complaints a year, the official said.
The Philadelphia regional office -- which covers the District, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia -- received 2,183 complaints in the first six months of this year, 150 of them from the Washington area, said the same official.
Many people think that HUD has far more power than it actually does, according to the official, who added that HUD tries to pass on complainants to the right place.
Many of the complaints that fall outside HUD jurisdiction concern private buildings HUD does not insure and has no control over, the same official said.
Most of the complaints received from the Washington area concern public housing, the consumer complaints division spokesman said.
The bulk of these complaints are about rent increases, the official said. In the winter there also are many complaints about poor heating in public housing and about general maintenance.