A court case arising from nonpayment of utility bills at a federally subsidized apartment complex in Wyoming has prompted new scrutiny by the agency overseeing the Pin Oak Apartments.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is looking into questions arising from California owner Byron Kermeen's longstanding practice of charging tenants additional fees of up to $95 a month if they have window air-conditioners, an agency spokeswoman confirmed Friday.
Tenants living in HUD-supervised units generally cannot be required to pay such additional charges, said Laura Feldman, a spokeswoman for HUD's regional office in Chicago.
"This project is 100 percent Section 8, and the tenant is only required to pay their portion of the rent," Feldman said in an email to the Journal Star.
The possibility they had been paying additional charges that were not authorized by HUD shocked longtime tenants. Some said the window units they purchased and installed are a matter of basic survival at this time of year.
"You couldn't live in this place without one," said Jaye Klepfer, 78. "There were two years when I tried to do without one. It got up to over 100 in here, and I got terribly sick."
Kermeen charges everyone with a 5,000 BTU room-sized air-conditioner $47.50 a month for four months each year; tenants with a 10,000 BTU unit are charged $95 a month, tenants said and he confirmed.
An Ameren Illinois spokesperson emphasized that many factors can affect electrical costs of using such items. But a 5,000 BTU unit purchased by a reporter carried a widely used "Energyguide" tag estimating annual costs at $41; Kermeen's plan would add $190 a year.
"I never questioned it. I just thought it was something we had to pay," said Klepfer, who has lived at Pin Oak since 1983.
Kermeen said in a telephone interview that the charges had been orally authorized many years ago by a regional HUD official who is no longer with the agency. There was no written policy, he added.
"We didn't do so much in writing back then," Kermeen said.
But the idea of charging extra for air-conditioning came as a surprise to the operators of a similar HUD-based complex called Sunshine Village in nearby Toulon. It's always been understood that a tenant's income-based rent payment covers all utilities, including air-conditioning at that facility, which was built just a few years after Pin Oak, co-manager Denny Rewerts said Friday.
"It covers everything except telephone and cable service," Rewerts said.
Kermeen said he had been questioned about additional payments shortly after the Journal Star had inquired about them. "HUD wants to know who gave me the authority to do that," he said.
Feldman said Friday she did not have a ready answer to whether tenants would have any recourse for payments that may have been improperly collected.
"We are still checking into the air conditioner matter," she said.
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