Water District Accused of Bias Against Public Housing Tenants

PHOENIX (CN) — A fair housing group sued a water district south of Phoenix, claiming it discriminates against poor people and minorities by charging residents of public housing more than three times the normal deposit for water hookups.

The Maricopa Domestic Water Improvement District, 40 miles south of Phoenix, charges public housing tenants a $180 hookup fee, though all others pay just $55.

And though the fee is refundable upon termination of service, only tenants of public housing have to show proof of “timely payments” to get their deposit back, according to the federal complaint.

The Southwest Fair Housing Council and two residents of the city of Maricopa sued the Maricopa Domestic Water Improvement District on June 5. The two co-plaintiffs are both women, one of them white, with three children, one disabled; and one Latina, living with two children and a grandchild.

“The racial make-up of public housing in Maricopa is primarily people of color,” their attorney Paul Gattone said in an interview. “Obviously, this is part of our claim of a violation of their housing rights. They’re being treated unequally because of where they live and who they are.”

Ninety percent of the tenants of Pinal County’s 169 public housing units are minorities, according to the complaint: 20 percent are African American, 22 percent Native American and 48 percent Latino. Eighty-four percent of the households are headed by women and 42 percent include disabled people.

The Pinal County Housing Department requires residents to show proof that water, gas and electricity are turned on before moving in. The additional step financially strained plaintiff Jennifer Peters, a single mother who moved into the public housing complex in 2016 with her three children, one of whom is disabled.

“Her limited monthly income of less than $800 made it impossible for her to independently pay the deposit and re-connection fees for her utilities,” the lawsuit states. “The service fee charged by MDWID was almost a quarter of her income.”

Peters had to apply for additional public assistance to pay for the utility deposits so she could move in.

Plaintiff Tavita Peña merely tried to move from one unit in the housing complex to another, and had to pay $180 to turn on the water, plus $400 in additional charges before the family could move into the new unit.

“Peña was afraid she would end up on the street with her children and grandchild,” the lawsuit states.

The Fair Housing Council sent testers to apply for housing after hearing of the families’ anxiety and depression.

“Testing is a widely accepted practice in the fair housing community,” Gattone said. To do so, he said, his group “calls up and says, ‘I’m interested in getting housing there’ and gets the information.”

He said the testers confirmed the allegations.

Public housing residents “are obviously in difficult situations financially,” Gattone said. “They’re supporting their families on limited income. Having an added deposit puts an increased burden on their already limited financial resources. When they’re living on low wages, public assistance, etc., things are pretty tight.”

The water district did not comment, saying its manager would return Monday.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the water district violates the state and federal Fair Housing Acts, an injunction, refunds, and costs of suit.

Attorney Gattone’s office is in Tucson.

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