Tenants in nine public housing communities throughout Annapolis will be charged for `excess' gas and electricity use

Saving up energy to pay the bills

February 02, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

Devera Pounds, 52, is saving and waiting. She's saving energy by turning off the heat at night, even during last night's below-freezing temperatures. She's waiting for the first BGE bill to arrive at her Eastport Terrace apartment as early as next week.

"When it comes through that mail slot and I open it up, I'll rub my stomach a bit and see which route I'm going to take from there," she said. "Other than that, there is nothing we can do about it."

She and other tenants in nine city public housing communities have been bracing for this for a year. The Annapolis Housing Authority announced back then residents would have to start paying for "excess" gas and electricity use, in hopes of reducing the authority's $600,000 Baltimore Gas & Electric debt. Officials say the switch will mean a more fiscally sound agency and more responsible use of utilities, but some residents have ignored repeated requests to sign up directly with BGE.

As a result, up to 65 families will be sent eviction notices today, authority officials said.

"Some people think that the housing authority isn't going to do anything about it or go through with it, but they fail to realize that we've already gone through with it," said Eric Brown, executive director. "These people who don't sign up and don't get utility service in their name, we will evict them. But we're doing everything we can to avoid that."

He said that for six months, officials have been meeting and holding information sessions on the changeover, but that misinformation could have been a factor in the failure of some residents to sign up.

Pounds, who attended some of those meetings and signed up immediately, is doing all she can to avoid busting her tight budget.

She works in child care and receives child support payments for her two teenage sons. Her monthly rent is $203, and her monthly "energy stipend" is $109. That means she'll have to now pay that amount to BGE, and $94 in rent. Monthly stipends, which range from $28 for a one-bedroom unit in College Creek Terrace to about $68 for a one-bedroom in Annapolis Gardens, are based on the apartment's size, location and age.

If residents exceed their allotments, they'll owe - a prospect that Pounds finds challenging.

"You can't pay what you ain't got, but I'm going to have to deal with what I can, best I can," she said. "And I hope BGE is going to be as lenient as they say they will be. If we are forced to pay this or face eviction they are going to empty every apartment over here."

Others, like David Harris, 50, a federal employee who lives in Robinwood, are taking the change in stride - conserving, but not fearing a financial hardship.

"I'm not going to owe that much," Harris said, predicting that he won't go over his gas and electric stipend which he said is about $200. "I watch how much heat I use and turn it off during the day."

To cut down on costs, the housing authority has weatherized some apartments, installing energy-efficient thermostats and weatherstripping at a cost of about $150,000.

According to a November energy audit, the cost of revamping all of the agency's 1,100 units to make them energy efficient is nearly $3 million - money the authority doesn't have to buy new boilers and refrigerators. It has, however, slashed its BGE debt - created by a cut in federal funding -to about $300,000.

Maintenance has yet to visit Pounds' apartment, so she's done some of the work herself. There's duct tape on the front and back doors and plastic on the windows. And she's looking at installing fluorescent bulbs and energy efficient showerheads.

She and some other residents also qualified for grants though the Community Action Agency in anticipation of the coming bills.

Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE, said the utility helped residents work with other agencies to pay overdue balances.

Trudy McFall, chairwoman of the housing authority's board, said that the shift will be a "substantial life change for the residents," but ultimately be a benefit.

"It's necessary for the housing authority's fiscal health," she said. "And for the residents it establishes credit history and helps them learn skills of planning for bills and conserving electricity."nia.henderson@baltsun.com

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