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Jan. 29, 2023

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VHA, tenants move toward $500,000 settlement

Utility allowances didn\u2019t keep up with rising rates, residents argue

By , Columbian staff writer

The Vancouver Housing Authority will set aside nearly $500,000 in a settlement fund that may be used to compensate as many as 900 tenants who paid too much in rent between April 2004 and April 2011.

If the settlement is approved by a federal judge at a hearing set for July 31 in Tacoma, a class-action lawsuit brought by three VHA tenants will not move forward and the housing agency will make payments to some tenants who lived in its public housing units during that seven-year period of time.

VHA tenants Annie McCullumn, Nancy Ramey and Tami Romero filed a lawsuit earlier this year and subsequently engaged in mediation with VHA. Their claim is that VHA did not raise its public housing utility allowances as local utility rates increased; as a result, tenants living in public housing wound up shouldering an unfair burden by paying too much in rent and utility payments to the agency.

Columbia Legal Services, representing the tenants, pointed out in a statement on Tuesday that federal law says that public housing tenants should pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income for rent and utilities. VHA is supposed to review utility rates and recalculate its own utility allowance annually, but the tenants claimed this wasn’t done. They claim that as many as 900 current and former tenants may have been affected.

All tenants who lived in public housing between April 1, 2004, and April 30, 2011, should receive individual notices in the mail soon. They can object to the settlement in order to press for a different one or pursue their own remedy. Those wanting to opt out or to speak at the hearing on July 31 must let the court know in writing by July 1.

Not all will receive refunds, because VHA sent out some refund checks in 2010 and 2011 in response to Columbia Legal Services’ arguments at that time.

VHA has agreed to the settlement fund of $488,824.02, but denied that it violated any laws.

“VHA disagrees with the basis for plaintiffs’ lawsuit and does not believe that any of its tenants have been harmed,” executive director Roy Johnson said.

According to VHA commissioner meeting minutes from earlier this year, VHA decided to settle in order to avoid class-action litigation that was likely to prove even more expensive. VHA and Columbia Legal Services have been discussing this issue for nearly six years, the minutes note.

Greg Provenzano, a lawyer with Columbia Legal Services, said he’s pleased that low-income tenants will get money back and that the “settlement will also ensure that this does not occur again.”

If you lived in VHA public housing between April 2004 and April 2011, contact VHA at 360-993-9526 or Columbia Legal Services at 1-800-260-6260, ext. 153, to make sure they have your current mailing address.

The hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. July 31 at the United States District Court for Western Washington, Union Station Courthouse, 1717 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.