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Rent dispute resolved

An agreement has been reached between Douglas County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and the two tenants who sued the agency over increased rent.

An agreement has been reached between Douglas County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and the two tenants who sued the agency over increased rent.

On Monday, November 29, HRA entered into a settlement agreement with the two tenants who filed a lawsuit against it for illegally increasing their rents, according to Sherry Bruckner with Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota.

According to the terms of the settlement, HRA will restore the rent payment standards back to the 100 percent of fair market rent level. The agreement took effect starting Wednesday, December 1 for all HRA voucher holders - not just the two tenants who sued HRA, said Bruckner.

HRA had changed the standard to 90 percent of the fair market rent level effective October 1, which meant that rent increased $62 per month for a two-bedroom unit for the tenants.

"We are pleased to reach a result in this case, which benefits all voucher holders," said Bruckner in an e-mail to the newspaper. "Our clients were very clear that they wanted to do something that helped everyone. There are still issues with occupancy standards, but we trust HRA will work with tenants to address any further concerns."

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Bruckner also noted that the parties agreed that the tenants who filed the case are entitled to a reasonable accommodation to the revised occupancy standards. A reasonable accommodation is a change in the policies or procedures to meet the needs of someone who is disabled. The revised occupancy standards state that an adult and child are only entitled to a one-bedroom occupancy standard. Under the accommodation, the tenants are allowed a two-bedroom standard, explained Bruckner.

Bruckner thanked Jack Cann and the Housing Preservation Project in St. Paul for its help and leadership on this case.

"We are very grateful to Jack," she said. "In an effort to resolve the matter quickly for tenants, the Housing Preservation Project and Legal Services agreed to forego any attorney's fees. Both entities really wanted to see HRA funds used to directly benefit those most in need of safe and affordable housing."

STATEMENT FROM HRA

Jessica Schwie, the attorney representing HRA and Jeff Schiffman, HRA director, submitted a statement to the newspaper in regard to the settlement. Here's what she had to say:

"In August 2010, HRA was facing a projected year-end shortfall that was substantial. To maintain financial stability and the ability to provide services to persons served by its program, HRA amended its Public Housing Authority five-year and annual plans, as well as its administrative plan.

"Since August, there was an unforeseen and dramatic change in the number of persons served by the program as well as other changes, which resulted in improved financial projections for HRA for year-end of 2010.

"As a result, the HRA was in the position to negotiate an early resolution to the litigation that challenged the HRA's decision in August.

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"The resolution benefits both the recipients of the program and the HRA."

Schwie noted that HRA is funded by the federal government, and that current federal funding projections indicate that shortfalls will continue to be a concern for HRA.

However, the demand for services provided by HRA remains high and is expected to continue.

In order to provide services, said Schwie, the HRA will likely have to continue to make difficult decisions - some of which may have negative impacts to persons served by the program.

The changes, she continued, are intended to serve the interests of the greater good by having a solvent and financially stable HRA program that will allow for assistance to many persons and families.

"The HRA strives to have meaningful and respectful discussions as to how to resolve current, ongoing and projected financial concerns while best serving the interests of the public," said Schwie. "Interested persons may attend the meetings in order to better understand the HRA and the difficult decisions it has to make."

HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED

In August, the HRA Board of Commissioners met and adopted an updated HRA Agency Plan.

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As part of the new plan, HRA Section 8 voucher holders in Douglas County received notice that their rent would be increasing.

HRA adjusted the rent payment standard, which is the amount of total housing expenses, including rent to the owner, plus any tenant paid utilities, set by HRA based upon fair market rents. Adjustments were also made to occupancy standards.

Previously, the HRA-approved payment standard for a two-bedroom home was $621 per month. Under the new plan, the approved rent is $559 per month - a difference of $62 per month or $744 per year.

The Section 8 voucher program is designed in part to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing for very low-income families while maintaining their rent payments at an affordable level.

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