Athena Lambert already was having trouble paying her bill when she got notice of a $100 rent increase in her federally subsidized townhouse in the 800 block of W. North Ave.
Lambert lives in the Madison Park North Apartments, a 202-unit complex with a troubled past punctuated by rent strikes, sewage backups and leaky windows.
A year ago, the landlord, who lives in California, agreed to settle a long-standing dispute with tenants by promising to make repairs and pay rent rebates to 34 tenants, including Lambert.
Today, the complex's management company has made many repairs, say tenants, but raw sewage still occasionally backs up in sub-basements, knocking out hot water heater gas pilots and leaving tenants with cold water for days at a time.
Lambert feels lucky to have received a $3,200 rent rebate -- enough to buy a car. But she has no idea how she will meet her monthly rental payment when it rises to $503. Lambert's rent increased $50 this month -- from $403 to $453 -- and she faces another $50 increase in August.
Lambert is a single mother with four children, ranging from 4 years old to 13. She makes $20,000 a year, working in the payroll department of Town and Country Management, which operates suburban apartment complexes.
She takes home between $350 and $500 every two weeks, depending on her deductions and overtime pay. Often, that is not enough to make ends meet.
"Everything is late all the time," said Lambert about her bills. "I could take one check and possibly pay my rent this time and pay one of my other bills and then somebody will have to wait, so I'm always constantly behind. With this increase it's going to make it even worse."
Even with the full rent increase, Lambert will pay about $100 a month less than the full market value charged for similar unsubsidized four-bedroom townhouses. The lower rent is possible because her landlord receives a government subsidy that reduces the mortgage interest payment on the complex. The subsidy comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's 236 program.
HUD officials approved the rent increase for tenants in the 236 program. They said the increase was justified because it has been four years since the landlord raised rents on those units.
Many apartments at Madison Park North are more heavily subsidized with HUD's Section 8 subsidies. Under that program, low-income tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their incomes for rent, and the government pays the rest. Rents on those Madison Park units will not increase.
Lambert is one of more than 30 tenants facing increases as high as 25 percent. She has been on the waiting list for a Section 8 subsidy since 1979. All government rent subsidies were drastically reduced under then-President Reagan, and the money has not been restored.
Diana Brown, chief of loan management at HUD, said Madison Park's owner applied for more Section 8 rental subsidies, but the request was turned down because money is scarce.
"[Management] recognized families' incomes are not keeping up with amount of rent. They didn't want families to be negatively affected," said Brown.
Brown identified the property's owner as Shelby Kaplan, who lives somewhere in California. She declined to release details about Kaplan, including her phone number.
Officials at Tricap Management, the company that maintains the complex, did not return a reporter's calls.
Tenants say management is doing a better job of maintaining the complex. But many problems still exist, including raw sewage that backs up into sub-basements.
"Every time there is a sewage backup, they jump on it right away, but there's still a problem," says Brenda Stokes, vice president of the Madison Park Tenants' Association.
Charlotte Bartholomew, president of the tenants' group, said a recent sewage backup in one of the buildings knocked out hot water for eight days.
As for Lambert, she has a leak in her kitchen that keeps recurring, even though it has been fixed three times, she said.