Sewer Authority On New Foreclosure Tear

Christopher Peak Photo The sewer authority attached a foreclosure sign to the chain-link fence outside Destiny Roldan’s white, two-story house in Fair Haven Heights. In block letters, it announced an upcoming auction to sell the $150,100 home to recoup her unpaid bills — which totaled just $3,436.

The scheduled foreclosure sale was part of the sewer utility’s latest wave of threatened property grabs, in an attempt to recoup debts that are worth a fraction of the homes’ value.

To collect on its delinquent accounts, the sewer agency, the quasi-public Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), has gone on a tear against New Haven homeowners, filing 158 foreclosure cases during the past 12 months. The debts prompting these actions run as little as $2,200. (In the last six months, the agency filed another 52 cases in Hamden, 48 in East Haven and one in Woodbridge.)

The cases have been clustered in New Haven’s Hill, West River, Newhallville and Fair Haven neighborhoods.

Most cases are settled out of court, including a near-sale last month, aborted just two days before the scheduled auction.

But the foreclosure proceedings — a far more aggressive strategy than comparable agencies use in collecting debts — interrupt struggling families’ lives, throwing another stress on top of attempted recoveries from unemployment, debilitating illness, addiction or damaging fires. And the suits plunge them further into debt, racking up thousands more in billable hours for third-party law firms in the suburbs, court costs and fees to the sheriff, state marshal and an appraiser.

Defending the tactic, WPCA’s top officials said the threat of a foreclosure is sometimes the only way to get a check from homeowners who’ve ignored the agency’s letters for years —  even a decade, as some cases dating to June 2006 prove. (On the other hand, some started for debts as recent as April 2015.) Without the suits, they argued, dutiful ratepayers are on the hook for their neighbors’ bills.

Fair housing advocates dispute the notion that a foreclosure is the only option for bringing in missing revenue.

“It’s kind of like the nuclear option for a relatively smallish debt,” said Shelley White, litigation director for New Haven Legal Assistance Association. For instance, other creditors usually file liens on properties for debts of comparable size, looking to recoup the money when properties get sold.

“I hate to see it being done by an essentially public utility,” White said. “To see people lose their houses over this just seems not terribly fair.”

Someone’s profiting, White added: “It’s a great moneymaker for whoever is filing these cases.”

“For a Bill?”

Roldan, 46, a lifelong New Havener, has lived at 78 Lancraft St. in the Heights for nearly two decades. There she let her two boys, now ages 11 and 15, run free in the massive backyard and cooked up meals for her 80-year-old mom in the tiled kitchen.

When the economy took a downturn in 2009, Roldan was confronted with a contentious divorce and her mother’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, as well as the loss of her job as an on-call nurse at a Stamford hospital.

Amidst the crises, she had to deal with three separate attempts by lenders to foreclose on her home. She made backup plans to move her mom into a nursing home and take her kids to a shelter. But eventually Roldan scrounged together enough money, between her occasional work and her mom’s Social Security checks, to fend off the banks and get her mortgage back in good standing.

Which is why, after all she’s been through, a foreclosure for a relatively minor utility bill hurts so bad, said Roldan (who, like other targets of WPCA suits, declined to be photographed for this article). “The [sewer] bill was there; I just couldn’t get to it. I had so much other stuff. The major thing that I needed to fix was the mortgage: My mind was set on saving the home. But then all of a sudden, I get the surprise, after I get myself out of foreclosure a year ago, that now you’re throwing me back into foreclosure.

“For a bill?” she asked, incredulous. “C’mon, how much stress can a family really take? This drives you up a creek. I can see how people go postal.”

 

When the law firm Shapiro & Epstein, PC, initiated a foreclosure case against her on Nov. 10, 2016, Roldan owed WPCA a total of $3,435.67. The firm sent a summons to her house alerting her to a court date a month away.

“I talked to the attorney and I was like, ‘Listen, give me a month or so, let me try to figure things out,’” Roldan recalled. “Just so much was happening in that month, that the whole month rolled over. Boom, boom boom. Next thing I know, it’s a foreclosure.”

The court granted a default judgement against her in February based on a failure to appear.

On May 8, 2017, Judge Anthony Avallone OK’d a foreclosure auction. He noted that her original debt had ballooned, with interest and more missed payments, to $4,490.37. Plus Roldan was now on the hook for an additional $1,750 for attorney fees (for the firm’s nine hours of work on her case), $300 for an appraisal fee and $225 for a title search.

A sale of her home was scheduled for Saturday, July 29, at noon.

“I understand it’s got to get paid. I’m not denying there’s a bill,” Roldan admitted. “Fine, put a lien on it. If the house gets sold, trust me, you can take a good look and see the house is worth the money.

“But the point is why put a family out? This Christmas, it’ll be 19 years. Why would you do that? Why don’t you ask for the circumstances of what’s going on, rather than selling the house and leaving [us] homeless? When did this start that they can sell your house for $4,000 [in debt]? A house! That you owned, paid your sweat and money into to pay for a roof over your head.”

A Unique Utility

Aggressive foreclosure suits are not a new tactic for WPCA. In 2008, as the housing market imploded, the agency came under scrutiny for adding to homeowners’ burdens. In 2012, the Independent reported that the utility was filing another rash of cases, 150 just in the first half of that year.

Unlike other utilities, the WPCA doesn’t shut off a sewer connection because a customer isn’t paying. While it technically has the legal authority to cut service, the discontinuation could create a public health hazard, WPCA Executive Director Sidney Holbrook said. But without that threat, he added, WPCA’s collection rate lags at 89 percent — leaving an estimated $4.5 million hole in their $42 million budget each year.

To compensate for that disadvantage, the sewer authority’s managers argue that WPCA must take more extreme measures than other local utilities.

United Illuminating, Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas, all owned by AVANGRID, “do not initiate foreclosure proceedings against customers to recover delinquent payments, nor have they done so historically,” said spokesperson Edward Crowder. When the gas and electric companies are unable to resolve payment issues, they may contract with a collector.

Likewise, foreclosing on a property is a “last resort” for the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, said communications manager Kate Powell. “It is far better for all parties involved to reach an amicable agreement.” The water company has initiated only three foreclosures in the New Haven area in recent years, for bills ranging from $4,894 to $75,557.

WPCA’s higher-ups stressed that they always prefer setting up a payment plan over dragging a homeowner to court. They outlined a process that, they argue, allows plenty of time for a customer to reach out to make those arrangements.

Only after the balance exceeds $1,000 — roughly two and a half years without payments for the average customer — is the account forwarded to a collections attorney.

The sewer authority makes many attempts to get in touch with delinquent customers, they said. Gabriel Varca, WPCA’s director of finance and administration, shared one typical example of all the communication sent to a Hamden homeowner who fell behind in August 2010. Over the next seven years, WPCA sent at least 58 pieces of mail to the person’s home: 28 quarterly bills, a 30-day late notice, a 60-day late notice, a collection notice, 12 intent-to-lien notices, 12 liens filed, a tax warrant, a final warning and a summons. Additionally, the collection agency and the foreclosure attorney each sent several more demand letters he didn’t track.

Why Don’t They Call?

But clearly, with so many cases reaching the courtroom, there appears to be a communication breakdown.

From the WPCA headquarters on East Street, the company’s managers claimed they’re willing to make a payment arrangement with practically any homeowner and wonder why customers don’t take a simple step: just pick up the phone and call.

Over in the Hill, debtors buried in an avalanche of bills offered a different perspective, saying they don’t always know how to dig their way out and don’t expect to find a forgiving ear from the companies they owe.

Notably, of the 58 pieces of mail sent to the Hamden homeowner over the seven-year period, only one letter mentioned repayment plans — practically as an aside. “If payment in full, or a reasonable payment arrangement, is not made by January 6, 2017, the account will be referred to an Attorney to commence Foreclosure action,” the one sentence reads.

Clearer language could help, argued Loraine Martinez, a staff attorney working on foreclosure prevention at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. “One good solution would be reaching out to these homeowners when they’re about to approach that [debt] threshold and proposing a repayment plan, instead of homeowners having to reach out to the city or their attorney to negotiate on their own, which can be really intimidating.”

To Tanisha Mathis, a 43-year-old who has lived at 99 Cedar St. for 17 years, sewer bills proved incomprehensible. She’s been trying to dispute the charges on her sewer bill for years. WPCA said she owed $4,885 in missed payments, dating back to April 2012. Mathis planned to dig through her receipts — she always paid at the store — to see if that sounded right.

That is, until the Independent informed her that her WPCA bill had already been settled. Unbeknownst to Mathis, her bank seems to have narrowly averted a foreclosure sale by fronting $8,391.15 on May 31, one week after Judge Avallone approved an auction of her $105,000 home.

Hearing the news, Mathis leaned over her porch railing, as if she were about to hurl. Smoke trailed from the extra-long cigarette she held in one hand, while her two nieces traced circles on the front sidewalk on a tricycle and scooter.

“I feel so stressed. I feel so helpless. I worked so hard to get to where I am,” Mathis said, her voice wavering and tears falling from the corners of her eyes. “It’s just a lot. Especially when I know I made payments, and then I see thousands of dollars tacked on to what I know I don’t owe. I just ask them to give me a chance to get all that stuff [the paper receipts] together.”

But for Mathis, it’s already too late to settle. She can’t undo the attorney fees and court costs that have already been set. Meanwhile, the rest of her life has fallen apart. Her credit score, once high, is now so low she can’t open a bank account, she said. Her nursing license lapsed after she attempted to open a daycare center for neighborhood low-income children (including her nieces, who’d been largely abandoned while their mother fell into crack addiction). Money from the state never came through, and she’s now unemployed. Mathis can’t afford car insurance anymore, meaning she either risks driving illegally to find work or needs a family member to transport her. A house fire finally drained the last of her savings. Mathis knows she needs the seven family members who live with her to pay more rent, but she admitted they likely don’t have it either.

“I was on Section 8 [subsidized rental housing] once. Most people would never give up Section 8, because it’s just so easy to pay them that little third or whatever and don’t have to worry about a house. But I worked very hard to have my own. I never wanted to live off the state’s money, when there’s somebody else who could use that,” Mathis said. She doesn’t know how to get out from the piling debts, racing against interest rates, she said. “I pray a lot. I ask Him to open up doors, just help me financially. I just tell God sometimes I’m so depressed I don’t want to wake up in the morning. I don’t want to wake up anymore thinking about bills, go to bed thinking about bills. I’m just so tired.”

Court filings and interviews with homeowners in the Hill show that many, like Mathis, aren’t deliberately stiffing the sewer company. Facing hard times, they simply don’t have the money.

Many had lost their jobs. An unemployed tow truck driver and father of three on Putnam Avenue had to ask his family in Puerto Rico to send him $5,000 as the settlement’s down payment. Down in City Point, on Hallock Avenue, a laid-off van driver who owns rental property thought he’d worked out a payment plan with WPCA months ago, only to find out from the Independent that the utility sued him.

Others faced steep medical bills or lost hours caring for a family member. A few doors down, on Hallock Avenue, a mother of two sick children on a high-deductible insurance plan didn’t realize the overdue sewer bill wasn’t covered by her bankruptcy filing in 2012.

And sometimes, emergencies set a person back. On Rosette Avenue, in Hill Central, lawyers tracked down a couple in Atlanta, where they moved after a cigarette butt tossed into their third-floor gutter ignited their property and left it inhabitable.

WPCA’s managers replied that they wish they’d known what these homeowners had been through.

“If there’s no contact, we don’t hear that story,” Varca said. “The last thing we want is to add to somebody’s burden. That’s why we’ve never taken possession of somebody’s home. We’re the big, bad wolf who never blows the house down. We are so responsive, we have guys fish keys out of the sewer at 2 a.m. because somebody coming out of the bar dropped them.”

However, the WPCA has filed suits that led to home sales, including one at 379 Ferry Street in June, when the home of dentist Fabricano Falcon was sold for $90,000 to a Bridgeport buyer because of a $1969.77 debt. So, while someone else eventually buys the property and has his name on the deed, WPCA made it happen. Even when there’s no sale, the process of filing the suits plunges people with precarious finances into deeper debt.

Varca and Holbrook passed their business cards across a boardroom table to the Independent. “Tell them to call us,” Varca said.

That’s easier said than done, added Roldan. “A lot of people get so scared when you’re going through foreclosure, you’re even afraid of opening up your mail. You’re in so much depression and so much anxiety that, when you receive something from the court, you run straight to the bathroom. You get sick,” she explained. “The fear is so much, it’s so overwhelming.”

By Other Means

In the next 12 months, according to this fiscal year’s budget, WPCA needs to shake loose $1.4 million in delinquent interest and lien fees to break even on their expenses. That means it’ll need to collect those funds steadily from the several hundred customers who voluntarily set up payment plans. If that’s not enough, it will need to get money from some of the 3,419 accounts that have been forwarded to collection agencies (which, collectively, owe $4.6 million) or the 150 open cases with collection attorneys.

Several fair housing advocates suggested there are better ways than foreclosures to call in the IOUs.

“In my experience, there are countless ways to legitimately collect a debt. There’s a lot of things they can do without threatening to take people’s homes away and charging exorbitant legal fees in the process,” argued Water Wagoner, a bankruptcy lawyer who has handled thousands of debt cases in New Haven. “Foreclosures are generally reserved for delinquent mortgages, and that’s what they’re properly there for. Compared to home values, which are $100,000 and up typically, [WPCA] can literally take a home away for a penny on the dollar of the house value.”

For starters, WPCA can get wage attachments or garnish bank accounts, Wagoner said. Similarly, WPCA could apply for receiverships over investment properties so that the sewer authority would collect all monthly rent checks to start paying down its bill on tenant-occupied buildings, suggested Martinez, the Connecticut Fair Housing Center attorney.

Or, they could simply wait until the house is sold. “This kind of debt is very safe,” Wagoner said. “You cannot eliminate this debt in bankruptcy, because it’s a secured debt on the home.” And best for the WPCA, each month, it earns 1.5 percent interest, or 18 percent annualized — a rate that beats what most credit card companies charge.

That’s because of a quirk in state law, passed in the 1980s, when interest rates soared. The rate for WPCA and other municipal debt “mirrored ‘prime’ for years, until prime went down. The 18 percent never went down, and towns fight like hell to keep it,” recounted Jeff Gentes, Connecticut Fair Housing Center’s managing attorney. (A State Senate bill aiming to reduce the interest rate to 6 percent per year hasn’t moved out of the Banking Committee since its introduction in February.)

Courtesy of Joshua Jacobs Wagoner called that a “phenomenal return” by today’s standards, when U.S. Treasury bonds or mortgages might net just 4 percent interest. “Where can you get a better deal?” he asked. “They don’t have to foreclose. Wait until it’s sold or inherited. They can get a windfall at the end of the day. It’s the best investment you could find. They’re making a ton of money just by waiting.”

At the very least, attorneys from the Connecticut Fair Housing Center argued, homeowners with utility bills should be able to participate in foreclosure mediation in court — a program that’s currently available only for mortgage debt. And they should be provided with information about the terms of a proposed repayment plan and the threat of attorney’s fees right when their account is being passed on to a debt collector, as a State Senate bill that died in the Judiciary Committee last year would have guaranteed.

When asked to comment on the rip of foreclosures, two of New Haven’s representatives on WPCA’s nine-member board of directors declined to comment. Al Paolillo, a state rep and alder who does triple duty as WPCA board’s vice chairman, referred inquiries to the sewer company’s staff, and Clay Williams, the city’s small business development officer, told the Independent to show up at a board meeting.

Stopping a Sale

Christopher Peak Photo When the Independent talked with Roldan in her kitchen on Monday night, she was trying desperately to halt the auction of her home.

Her mortgage holder said it was willing to take the money out of escrow to pay off the debt, in Roldan’s telling. But for the last several weeks, that lump sum had been sitting with a third-party processing firm, CoreLogic. Despite near-daily phone calls, she hasn’t been able to figure out why.

In the meantime, a new law firm, Berdon Young & Margolis, which is executing the foreclosure, started racking up charges of its own. That meant Roldan had to ask for a new transfer from CoreLogic with more in attorney fees —  potentially slowing down a process that’s already been delayed.

When she spotted the foreclosure sign Margolis’s team put up last week, Roldan ripped it from her fence, risking a penalty from the court. “It’s embarrassing, it’s belittling for people to put signs up in your house,” Roldan said. “They have no idea what I’ve been through.” After just a few hours of the sign being up, neighbors started asking her about her finances. Potential buyers have knocked on her door asking for tours or have snapped pictures from their car.

Roldan assured her eldest son —  the only family member she’s told —  that she will work things out.

Roldan and the Independent spoke with her alder, Ernie Santiago, on Wednesday night. The sale was called off less than 24 hours later.

No payment had gone through, Roldan said, but she was told the law firm would settle her bill out of court. She said she still wants to know whether that means she’s liable for thousands in interest and fees.

Roldan said she also wants to know why it took intervention from an elected official and the threat of bad publicity to save her home, and what that means for other families without the wherewithal to push back against WPCA.

“I’m happy that I caught it on time, but how many people has this happened to? This doesn’t relieve me, OK? I can’t turn my back. Now, I feel obligated to do something, because just like me, there’s other families. And people are confused, they don’t understand,” she said Thursday night as a “massive headache” throbbed from unloading the week’s stress. “I need to shed some light on this because they’re stealing people’s homes and causing unnecessary grief, period.”

If her case is fully resolved, Roldan said she plans to walk the neighborhood and counsel others in her situation. Unemployed as she is, Roldan said she’ll hand over her résumé right away if WPCA wanted to hire an outreach coordinator.

“I never received a [knock] at the door,” she said, rapping her knuckles against the kitchen table. “‘Hey, can we help you? We have services. Are you in some type of hardship? What’s going on?’ I never got that from anybody. I never got that from absolutely anybody. All I got,” she said, “is foreclosure papers.”

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posted by: robn on July 14, 2017  4:25pm

I think the CT courts should protect somebody if they’ve missed a few payments or hit on hard times for a brief period of time but this case seems to be someone who hasn’t paid their bill for a decade.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on July 14, 2017  4:45pm

After just a few hours of the sign being up, neighbors started asking her about her finances. Potential buyers have knocked on her door asking for tours or have snapped pictures from their car.

This is how the Gentrification Vampires roll.I keep on telling all of you>New Haven is in the second stage of Gentrification.Alot of you will be gone very soon.

Gentrification animated

https://youtu.be/WavTSjJkL0U

posted by: Paul Wessel on July 14, 2017  8:32pm

This is a good issue for the Mayor and Board of Alders to show some leadership on. While their legal power may be limited, they have substantial leverage. How about it?  If you wanted to put together a task force, I’d be happy to serve.

posted by: LookOut on July 14, 2017  9:44pm

The Benefits of Gentrification

https://goo.gl/WDXXV1

posted by: aharper on July 15, 2017  4:20am

“Varca and Holbrook passed their business cards across a boardroom table to the Independent. “Tell them to call us,” Varca said”.

Please can you share the contact information? I have a client in a terrible situation similar to the people mentioned in the article, and knowing who specifically to contact will be incredibly helpful. We have written letters, and called, and the client has offered to pay what he can afford ($50 monthly), but they say he has to pay at least $200 for them to consider coming to an arrangement.  He is being charged monthly late fees of 18% (I think) of the total amount owed such that that total amount is spiraling out of control. His financial situation is dire, and he simply cannot pay more than $50 a month. If he loses his home, he will be homeless at the age of 62.

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on July 15, 2017  6:02am

One must muster the courage to overcome fear and trust that people are basically good despite the fact that people often act badly. One has the personal responsibility to arm himself with the knowledge that empowers him in order to be a good citizen and contribute to the common good. No one else can do this for him but help abounds. Repeated attempts to resolve financial debts are to be taken seriously and require an active response from the debtor to personally and courageously find that knowledge so that he can respond to the creditor virtuously. I mean, after all, he is the one who owes someone something and that should be the motivation that drives him to personally resolve the situation even if he is tempted to deny his predicament because he is overwhelmed. It does no one any good to demonize the GNHWPCA as they are the ones who are compelled to use coercion to protect those who can pay.  They are trying to continue to provide a public service and kept rates down, which, by the way, they just went up. I have to imagine that there is connection here. No pun intended. We must stop looking at ourselves as victims and demonizing others.  When I was compelled to take over running my Condominium Association in the Hill because it had become financially insolvent, we owed the GNHWPCA thousands of dollars and were in court ordered receivership from our debts with the Regional Water Authority.  In part, I took to resolving this responsibility as an eager mission to unite are predicament with our local government.  Towards that end, Ms. Serena Neal Sanjurjo from LCI graciously granted me a meeting.  She subsequently directed Mr. Clay Williams to go to bat for me and he actually called me.  After I explained the Association’s situation to him, he called Mr. Varca on my behalf.  Mr. Varca then actually called me. Mr. Varca then directed his staff to work with me so that I could equitably resolve the Association’s debts, which I have. (Continued)

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on July 15, 2017  6:05am

(continued)

I would like to take this opportunity to publically thank all involved in helping me meet my responsibilities.  I mean, after all, is that not what we are all here for?  To discipline our wills to do what we know we should do and learn to have the courage to do it?  Quite frankly, all parties involved were nothing but extremely helpful and it was technically an easy operation once the fear was met head-on. Again, we must stop looking at ourselves as victims and demonizing others.

posted by: Noteworthy on July 15, 2017  6:45am

Empathy and Enabling Notes:

1. It’s called life. There are ups and downs, tragedy and disruption.  Bad decisions and business deals that don’t work out. Nearly all of us face one or more of them; some of us face all of them. That doesn’t mean you don’t pay your bills or somehow you’re exempt from paying those bills. 

2. If you go 10 years without paying your sewer bill - that’s not anything other than a self inflicted lack of responsibility which eventually after tons of mail and notices.

3. The idea that the sewer company owes these folks a phone call in addition to all the notices, flies in the face logic and common sense. If you get foreclosure notices and fail to show or respond, if you get notices and fail to respond, it is illogical to think a phone call will go anywhere except the answering service.

4. Do these folks also ignore the light bill? The cable bill? The gas bill?

5. I totally reject the idea there should be no foreclosures. Not after 10 years. By the way, guess what City Hall does if you don’t pay your taxes - you get four months behind, the letters of tax liens begin. You don’t take care of your taxes in the next month or so, it’s foreclosure. Don’t pay the taxes on your car? They tow it and keep it until you do.

6. Tough story. Tough lesson. An unnecessary one too.

posted by: vpaul on July 15, 2017  11:09am

I’m sorry but the tone of this article is nonsense. Homeowners are repeatedly warned of impending action, including a 30-day letter by the collection attorneys. When they ignore everything, instead of working out a reasonable payment plan (to which the WPCA is very amenable), they then get served with court papers.

Even THEN, a foreclosure court is a court of equity, i.e., considers fairness, is empowered to protect the homeowner.

And many repeat the same neglect, some many times, and end up paying several times the amount of the original small sewer use charge.

If the foreclosure mechanism were not available, nobody would pay anything until they refinance, sell or die.

In the meantime, sewers have to be maintained and accounts have to be kept in proper order. Who will pay for that?

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on July 15, 2017  11:30am

Dear aharper,

Per your request,

Mr. Varca: 203.466.5280
Mr. Clayton Williams: 203.946.7093
Ms. Serena Neal Sanjurjo: 203.946.6437
Mr. Sidney J. Holbrook: 203.776.3570 (ask for the Executive Director)
United Way of Connecticut: 211
New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Inc.: 203.946.4811

posted by: Noteworthy on July 15, 2017  1:28pm

Aharper:

$50 per month will not hardly pay the quarterly bill - let alone reduce the backlog. That’s why they want the $200 per month.

posted by: Brutus2011 on July 15, 2017  4:47pm

Foreclosing on home with a debt ratio of 1:50 is absurd and should be illegal.

Legal Aid should be able to help.

I would if I were licensed in CT.

And all these folks who take such conservative line should remember, “but for the grace of God go I.”

posted by: John Bodnar on July 15, 2017  5:55pm

A heartless,greedy company will destroy another family.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on July 15, 2017  6:47pm

posted by: LookOut on July 14, 2017 9:44pm

The Benefits of Gentrification

https://goo.gl/WDXXV1


Gentrification Kills Diversity

https://youtu.be/tOiWLDRko7A


Gentrification, a social cleansing to force ordinary people to move outside London

https://youtu.be/U9f7DWRzWVQ

posted by: robn on July 15, 2017  10:08pm

BRUTUS

If you’re really the kind of person who thinks it’s ok to NOT pay your bills for 10 years could you please leave? Most New Haveners are honest citizens who strongly disagree with that…and who don’t want that kinds of irresponsible citizens (or their enablers) around them.

posted by: John Bodnar on July 16, 2017  12:44am

robn
This once great country is not that great anymore.The economy collapsed and she did not have enough money to pay her bills.Also her relative became ill.Cut her some slack.She needed a little help.

posted by: aharper on July 16, 2017  1:31am

Obviously people need to pay their bills, and ideally it would be that simple. But when someone is struggling financially and simply cannot afford the full monthly payments, how does it help to add not only an annual interest rate on the amount owed, but a monthly late fee which brings up the amount owed even higher - exponentially, as the fee is a percentage of the amount owed?  In the particular case I have been involved with, the extenuating circumstances and an offer to pay what is possible have been explained by letter, and by phone call, to no avail. The amount owed continues to spiral, and the possibility of foreclosure looms.

posted by: 1644 on July 16, 2017  9:05am

John Bodner: The WPCA is not a “heartless, greedy corporation.”  It is a non-profit public authority created to serve all of us by cleaning our waste.  It performs a vital public health mission, which must be funded.  Originally, sewers were funded with ad valorem property taxes from municipalities’ general funds.  New Haven moved to a separate authority funded by a user fee largely to get funding from its many tax-exempt institutions.  The state DEEP prefers that sewers have a separate funding stream to ensure that the systems are properly maintained, and do not have to compete with other needs/wants.  Funding water treatment from general funds recognizes waste disposal as a public good, but is not acceptable to the state.  A few years ago, DEEP forced Branford to move from tax funding to a user fee.  Systems have two options:  a fee based on water usage as a proxy for sewer use, and a system where all dwellings are charged a uniform fee, and commercial and industrial uses are charged multiples of that per dwelling fee calculated as “equivalent dwelling units”, or EDUs, calculated by square footage and usage.  The latter system means large families pay less than their share, and small families more,  since it is an average.  However, administrative costs are less.  Branford charges an annual fee of $130/dwelling.  North Haven charges $265/dwelling.  Milford charges $300/dwelling.
  I expect Legal Aid will intervene. The result will be legal costs for the WPCA, which will must be covered with their fees.  If some do not pay their fees, or pay only a portion, the difference is borne by the those we actually do pay their bills.

posted by: Peter99 on July 16, 2017  9:12am

Gentrification versus a run down crime infested drug dealing neighborhood is a win for everybody. If the housing is renewed and some is slated as low income housing a mixed economic income group evolves into a community. We have the governmental vehicles to make this vision reality. Acceptance of crime, drug dealing, violence and other nefarious activities taking place where we live is unacceptable.

On this note, not paying your bills for a protracted period of time is also unacceptable in any society. Paying the bills for goods and services you consume makes you a contributing responsible member of the community. People need to take responsibility for their actions, because those actions will have either positive or negative consequences. Losing your home is a serious negative consequence of not paying your bills. Persons putting themselves in that position need to understand that not taking remedial action to at least try to resolve their problems will not make the problems go away. The procedural wheels of the courts turn slowly, but they will continue to turn even if it takes ten years. The government, lending institutions and other service providers do not forget unpaid bills. The letters, demands for payment and legal notices have to be answered. When someone ignores these communications without discussing their situation with the entity sending the letters bad stuff is going to happen. Resolution is possible with discussion, unless the situation is allowed to deteriorate over a period of time. Most institutions do not want to own property and will work with you if you try to work with them.

posted by: BevHills730 on July 16, 2017  11:32am

Fantastic reporting on a very important issue. In my experience, the WPCA is extremely disfunctional and opaque. The idea that public agencies would liquidate people’s houses and humiliate them is awful. I hope the alders hold a hearing on this.

posted by: robn on July 16, 2017  12:02pm

There’s a much simpler solution which isn’t cruel but is just the reality we all face. If you can’t afford a house, don’t own one. The house could have been liquidated by the owner to pay the bills, and that person could have moved into something they could afford. Proportionally, we have one of the largest subsidized public housing systems in the US and a gigantic elderly housing complex called Bella Vista. 10 years is a lot of time to work that stuff out. 1 year would be a lot of time.

posted by: 1644 on July 16, 2017  12:59pm

Bevhills:  Dysfunctional?  Are the sewer pipes on your street clogged?  Is your waste water not treated before going into the Sound?  If not, then the authority is functional.  As far as opacity, it has an excellent website with all its governing documents and financials available to all. In my own dealings with it, I have found it easy to deal with, other than its office being off the beaten path.  Going to its website, I note that its governing ordinance prohibits it from giving any user free or discounted services.  BTW, public agencies foreclose all the time.  That’s how they ensure payment for essential services, including sewer and water.

posted by: Brutus2011 on July 16, 2017  1:32pm

to “Robn”

I have always respected your comments but your reply to mine assumes way too much and says more about you than about me.

Break-est thou giveth.

posted by: Realmom21 on July 16, 2017  1:39pm

this article clearly shows its biaas by comparing what the other utilities do. No ui, the gas co and others dont foreclose but they do shut your service off to keep you from accumulating additional charges when you can pay for the ones you have already used. In addition the water and sewer bill are attached to the owner of the property not the user of said property thus you can take a home form someone who doesnt own it. Why is it ALWAYS EXPECTED that those who make a way should support those who dont. Every story on here is about someone caring for an elderly sick disabled etc.. how about those who still manage to smoke their 9$ a pack cigarettes, have iphones , go to the club & bars, buy their Xbox PlayStation games, have new flat screen tvs sneakers that cost as much as a utility bill, have every premium cable channel etc or go on vacations etc. Those who wash their cars, fill up pools etc why on earth should the water company have to chase them for years on end to pay what they owe. Why should their neighbors and everyone else who has a water bill have to suffer with increased rates etc for debts they had nothing to so with. If you have debt and it doesnt look right you have a right to dispute it but you dont get to wait 2,3,5 years to do so. They arent a not for profit charity. They are entitled to get payed and not at your convenience. reality check if you can ‘tafford the expense of a house ,Sell it and have an apartment where you arent responsible for emergency repairs and water sewer bills but dont claim it on your taxes and then cry a river because you owe someone and they do what they have to to collect on it. now the flip side. The utility company does have other viable options. They can limit use age, put liens, garnish wages and tax refunds, send reps out the same way the solicited for the pipe safety programs. Their should be an established amount before you can foreclose. but stop demanding that everyone else foot the bill when they are struggling t

posted by: John Bodnar on July 16, 2017  2:08pm

1644
Learn to spell my name correctly.Secondly, does the director of WPCA get paid a large salary?Lastly, use your entire name so the world can see who spews hate on this family.

posted by: EPDP on July 16, 2017  3:53pm

Why didn’t reporter Chris Peak ask the Mayor of the peasants of New Haven whom she represents what she thinks about this legalized transfer of wealth to politically connected law firms, who recycle all this cash back to the politicians?  Because Peak and Paul Bass are apologists for Mayor Harp.  Heartless Harp could care less about her constituents in the Hill. Harp the Heartless lives in Westville with her cheerleader Paul Bass.

posted by: BevHills730 on July 16, 2017  5:13pm

They are opaque and incredibly defensive. I once tried to interview them and get some basic operating documents.  They leveled insane accusations at me and never gave up the documents. I can only imagine what it is like to deal with these guys once they have their claws in your house.

This is also a concern for the city. While these guys are recklessly foreclosing on houses for small debts, what are they doing to the property values of the neighborhoods? This abusive behavior merits further investigation.

posted by: robn on July 16, 2017  6:18pm

BRUTUS,

A year of leniency towards non payment would be empathetic; ten years? ridiculous.
I assume nothing about you except what you’ve written and you clearly think it’s OK to skate on financial obligations for a decade. I wholeheartedly disagree because the cost of those unmet obligations are just offset to the rest of us; it’s just wrong.
Do I feel sorry for someone fallen upon bad times? Of course. Do I think they should be let off the hook after such a long time (when they could simply downsize out of their home and meet their obligations)? Sorry but no.

posted by: J R on July 16, 2017  7:49pm

The solution here seems very clear:

Amount Owed > $1000?  Now you put a lein on the house.

Amount Owed > 30% of the value of the house?  Now you foreclose.  Simple.

Any lein secured to a house that is worth more than three times as much as the lein WILL be paid when the house is sold.  Period.  WPCA can afford to be patient because of that.  Many a lender would be happy to lend them what they need to plug a hole in their budget and charge less interest than the 18% statutory interest WPCA gets from letting the bills sit. 

It’s a win for almost literally everyone involved: the utility, the struggling homeowners, some lucky lender, and all the other ratepayers, who won’t see any of the costs fall on them.  The only people it’s bad for are the foreclosure lawyers!

posted by: BevHills730 on July 16, 2017  8:32pm

The sheer joy that some of the commentators get out of arguing that we should kick people while they’re down on their luck no longer surprises me. The bitterness is always disappointing though.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on July 16, 2017  8:42pm

posted by: Realmom21 on July 16, 2017 1:39pm

Their should be an established amount before you can foreclose. but stop demanding that everyone else foot the bill when they are struggling.

How about when we the taxpayers had to foot the bill for the auto bailout.How about when we the taxpayers had to foot the bill for when Slick Dan Malloy gave the approval of $22 million for Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund.

posted by: robn on July 16, 2017  10:21pm

BEV,

Truly sympathetic advice for this family could have been given to them a long time ago and would have advised them to downsize into something they could afford.

posted by: BevHills730 on July 16, 2017  11:04pm

Enjoy another kick Robn!

Also your advice is utter nonsense.

posted by: robn on July 17, 2017  8:36am

BEV,

Don’t be blinded by your ideology. The American Dream realized through home ownership is a post-WWII political concept, not a catch-all plan for family economics. It may be true for some but not for all. One size doesn’t fit all.

posted by: Seth Poole on July 17, 2017  10:42am

I have been dealing with this company for decades.  The WPCA has been engaging in price gouging for over a year now.  They are in need of an internal investigation of their accounting practices and their ineptitude to properly record water usage in New Haven.  This is proof!

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on July 17, 2017  11:21am

Great article, thanks for the map and in depth reporting.

posted by: J R on July 17, 2017  11:19pm

Also: can somebody explain to me why it makes any sense to have a separate sewer authority that sends a separate bill from the water authority?  Why should these things be separate functions/authorities in the first place?

In every other place I have lived besides New Haven (admittedly, all outside of Connecticut), utilities were amalgamated together.  I would get one bill, either water + sewer together, or in a different place one bill for almost everything—trash pickup, water, sewer, electric power.

That way is much better!  Then if people don’t pay the bill, after a while when the debt is large enough you just shut off some of the services.  No need to foreclose on anyone ever.

posted by: 1644 on July 18, 2017  10:51am

JR:  Potable water service and waste water treatment are different services requiring different skill sets.  More over, the service areas for the two agencies vary.  The RWA’s service area is much greater than GNWPCAs service area.  E.g.,  for potable water, Branford is serviced by the RWA (although many have wells), while the town operates its own sewer system unconnected with the Greater New Haven. system.  Guilford has no sewers, only septic tanks.  As far as trash pick-up, towns differ there, too.  New Haven has civil servants pick-up the trash.  Branford contracts with private haulers, putting the service out to bid every few years.  In Madison, residents must haul their own trash to the dump, or, as most do, contract privately (often in concert with neighbors) for curbside pick-up.  Our power companies are investor owned, for-profit utilities (as the New Haven Water Company was), so has a different approach from the sewer and water authorities, which are public, controlled by their constituent towns.  Of course, we have two power companies in the region, CL&P (Eversource), and United Illuminating, with different service areas that do not overlap the water and sewer service areas. Note, as public agencies, sewer and water liens take priority over over everything but taxes, and act like tax liens, appropriate as they provide services essential for public health.  I would not want my neighbor to not be able to flush his toilet, nor have sewer water backing up.  (Have you never seen a failed septic system?)  On the other hand, electricity and gas are less essential, especially if one does not depend on a well.  After a storm, we often live for weeks without power.

posted by: J R on July 18, 2017  12:52pm

1644: Thanks for the response.  I appreciate that water and wastewater treatment are different services.  But in every other place I have lived, the same utility managed somehow to do both things.  I have learned from this article one of the large advantages of that approach, which I had not previously understood.

Of course, I am not saying it would be easy to make this kind of change in southern Connecticut.  I recognize that we have a patchwork system of authorities with different responsibilities built up over many years, just like our crazy patchwork of tiny towns that is the legacy of our colonial past (in any other part of the country outside the northeast, New Haven’s municipal boundaries would include much more of the Greater New Haven population and tax base.)  We may not be able to change it easily or quickly, but the current patchwork approach to utilities seems wildly inefficient, in comparison to how they do things in most of the United States, in addition to causing the problems described in this article.

Given that we are stuck with this patchwork system for now, I recommend that the City sit down with the water authority and try to convince them to switch from foreclosures to leins.  Leins work—and although there can be a nasty surprise when heirs discover them and so on, that is better than leaving people homeless, and the utility gets just as much money (probably more).  The only losers are the lawyers.

posted by: 1644 on July 18, 2017  4:08pm

JR: As others pointed out, Harp depends on these law firms for campaign funds.  If they didn’t get foreclosure business, she would need to lean even harder on city employees and developers to fund her campaign.  We certainly cannot expect her to use public funding.
    As for change, well, our balkanized system worked well for 300 years.  Just because it hasn’t worked well for the last hundred years is no reason to rashly change it. 
    Seriously, the GNHWPCA and SCCRWA are rare examples of regionalization.  New Haven has paid a price for regionalization, though.  It has the most sewer users, but only four of nine seats on the board of directors.  It is disappointing that none of New Haven’s representatives spoke to NHI. 
  A note on municipal liens: they are only good for 15 years.  (Mortgage liens are good for 60.). Often if a property is mortgaged, the mortgagee will pay off any senior lien such as taxes so that its interests are not foreclosed. Most loan notes then allow the mortgagee to bill the mortgagor for the pay-off plus extra fees which the mortgagee charges.

posted by: John Bodnar on July 18, 2017  4:26pm

jr and 1644
I like the idea,liens work.Lawyers are creative they will find another source of income.