Kern Housing Authority goes after nearly $1M in old debts

Kern Housing Authority goes after nearly $1M in old debts »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Kern County's housing authority is going after a lot of money it says renters owe in past debts.

Some of the bills go back 30 years. But at least one renter disputes the big bill she got and worries about losing the housing assistance she depends on.

"We've updated our payment collection system," director Stephen Pelz told Eyewitness News on Tuesday. "They used to be all on card files, and now we've automated that process."

The Housing Authority of the County of Kern now believes it's owed about $952,000.

"Almost a million dollars," Pelz said. "That's over a 30-year period."

He said HACK found 1,033 clients who owe because they had at one time received "over payments" of rental assistance vouchers.

"That's usually a participant not reporting a change, either in income or in their household size," Pelz said. "And then we found out about it, and it becomes an over payment."

One participant insists she does not owe HACK.

"Jane" didn't want to reveal her name and said she got a letter dated April 20 stating she owes $1,637. Jane said she asked HACK why she owed that, but the answer just didn't make sense.

"They did some work for the landlord back in 1992 where I was living at that time, and they paid the landlord, but I never paid them," Jane said. She has no recollection of that.

Jane only remembers new carpet and paint went in on that apartment. But she'd lived there a long time and hadn't asked for the work to be done. She figured it was done by the landlord.

Jane asked for more information about the past-due bill, and went to the HACK office to see the records.

"It was just an index card with my name on it and the amount that I owed," Jane told Eyewitness News and "And they told me that I made one payment, and I never did."

She moved out of that apartment in 1994, and has been living in another apartment since then, always getting the rental voucher assistance.

Jane said HACK told her she owes from this situation back in 1992, but she wondered if they can even demand money for a bill that old. Pelz said they can.

"There may be a statute of limitations if you are pursuing through legal action," Pelz said. "But through a program, we can go back as far as somebody's been in the program."

Pelz said the voucher program in Kern County serves about 3,500 households. The total budget is now $18 million, and the funding is getting squeezed. They need more help for participants in this tough economy, but there isn't an increase in the federal funds.

"The federal funding is declining because of the deficit," Pelz explained. "In fact, we've stopped issuing vouchers. We won't issue any this year because we can only afford to pay for the people that are on the program."

Pelz said HACK will now try to get back the over payments they've now identified. For participants who are no longer getting assistance, the agency can try to capture state income tax refunds.

If a participant still getting vouchers is found to owe, Pelz said their assistance could be terminated.

"That's the last thing we want to do is terminate someone in the program, but we have to have to collect these funds," Pelz said. He added that participants could make "reasonable" monthly payments.

"Jane" said she can't make payments, and she scraped up some funds to cover her bill. But she really doesn't know how she'll pay that back. She's asked a legal office to investigate her case.

"I really don't know what I would do," Jane said. "I just have to find some way to pay the money."