For Kirstyn Gillotte, making rent was a monthly battle she couldn’t win.
The single mother of three says she had trouble finding work after her car broke down. The prohibitive cost of child care kept her home with her youngest kid most of the time anyway.
In the hardest times, Gillotte sold food stamps to pay her landlord, the Omaha Housing Authority. She still fell behind.
Gillotte, 32, said she told OHA staff that she couldn’t manage the $50 a month for her small row house at Southside Terrace.
What Gillotte didn’t know is that federal law and OHA’s own policies have a remedy for public housing tenants in her position. Called a hardship exemption, it’s meant to relieve those with extremely low incomes from having to pay the minimum rent public housing authorities are allowed to charge.
Gillotte said OHA never told her about that. Instead of an exemption, she got an eviction notice.
“They set me up for failure,” Gillotte said. “They just automatically gave me the boot.”
Gillotte is among six current and former minimum-rent tenants who told the Flatwater Free Press that OHA never offered them an opportunity to apply for a hardship exemption before they received eviction notices in the past 12 months. Four were evicted and two others agreed to deals in court that allowed them to stay in their homes if they paid a certain amount of money.
Omaha attorney Kate Mahern said it’s one of two ways that OHA appears to have violated federal law.
The federally funded agency also neglected to notify tenants of their right to appeal rent increases, said Mahern, a former director of Creighton University’s Abrahams Legal Clinic who has sued OHA in federal court four times.
The legal clinic is considering suing OHA if the issues can’t be resolved outside of court, Mahern said.
A recent settlement won by minimum-rent tenants in Chicago may have laid the foundation for a challenge against some of OHA’s practices, according to attorneys who worked on the case.
OHA declined to comment on Mahern’s concerns or the Flatwater Free Press’ findings.
The agency’s rent-change and minimum-rent practices have caused stress and upheaval for people who lost their housing, Mahern said. Much of it, the lawyer noted, could have been prevented if OHA had informed tenants of their rights.
“If you have a right under the law and it’s hidden from you by the only place that could tell you about it … it’s rendered meaningless,” Mahern said.
Hardship without help
Coming out of homelessness, public housing represented a way for ChaSha Swift to put a roof over her three kids’ heads.
Holding down a job is difficult because her youngest child has sickle cell disease and needs care, Swift said. The 29-year-old said her only regular income comes from $52-a-month child support payments. Those don’t always come.
Like Gillotte, Swift said OHA told her she had to pay the minimum rent to stay at Southside Terrace. To keep up, she asked family for help and sold her belongings.
After missing rent for a few months, Swift received an eviction notice in March that said she owed OHA $250.
“I had told them I needed help and no one ever got back to me. It was kind of like they didn’t care,” Swift said.
In court, Swift agreed to a deal that allowed her to remain in Southside Terrace if she paid off her debts, which then included two more months of rent and $350 in legal fees.
A nonprofit covered part of the tab. Swift said she sold the beds she and her children slept on and worked temp jobs to help pay the rest.
When Congress paved the way for public housing authorities to set a minimum rent in 1998, lawmakers also created hardship exemptions to prevent extremely poor tenants like Swift from losing their homes over financial debts.
Federal law states that public housing authorities “must grant an exemption from payment of minimum rent … when the family would be evicted because it is unable to pay the minimum rent.”
The agency requires tenants to “submit a request for a hardship exemption in writing.” To find the application on OHA’s website, residents would have to scroll down to the 14th link on a page labeled “forms and documents” under the “current residents” tab.
OHA declined to answer questions about its obligation to inform tenants of hardship exemptions. The agency said it doesn’t know how many minimum-rent tenants it has filed to evict or how many residents it has granted hardship exemptions.
About a third of OHA’s roughly 2,500 public housing families are on minimum rent.
Mahern believes OHA has so obscured information on the exemptions that tenants would never know to seek them out. The burden should be on OHA to offer hardship exemptions to tenants, she said.
“How would you know to apply for this if they don’t tell you about it?”
A spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development said public housing authorities must follow federal law, but it’s up to their staff and board members to establish procedures for implementing and communicating hardship exemptions. The agencies are responsible for covering the cost of the rent exemptions, the spokesman said.
A legal path forward may exist for Mahern and the Creighton legal clinic if they decide to sue OHA on behalf of minimum-rent tenants.
Larry Wood, an attorney with Legal Action Chicago, noticed years ago while representing tenants in eviction court that the Chicago Housing Authority was consistently trying to boot minimum renters over outstanding debts.
The class-action lawsuit he and other attorneys filed against CHA last year alleged that the agency failed to grant tenants rent exemptions even when staff knew they had no income.
“People have a right to request a hardship exemption, but that right is useless unless they’re informed that they have the right,” Wood said in an interview.
Earlier this year, a federal court approved a settlement in which CHA promised to provide more information about hardship exemptions to tenants. The agency also agreed to give qualifying tenants rent credits and to erase all unpaid minimum rent charges that accrued since 2016.
Kate Walz, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project who worked on the Chicago case, said OHA’s policy requiring tenants to file written requests for hardship exemptions appears similar to CHA’s old policy, but “ultimately it’s what they are doing in practice that matters most.”
Wood said he has heard from housing lawyers across the country that their local public housing authorities also fail to adequately offer hardship exemptions, which suggests to him that the issue could be widespread.
The easiest solution for housing authorities would be to get rid of minimum rent and allow extremely low-income tenants to forgo rent, Wood said. Otherwise, they should notify tenants in “big, boldface type” that they can apply for a hardship exemption if they aren’t able to afford the minimum rent.
Turbulence filled the lives of Gillotte and her kids after OHA evicted the family.
They stayed with a former neighbor at Southside Terrace for a few months. Then Gillotte and her kids moved in with her ex-husband in Colorado.
The family returned to Omaha and eventually found an apartment.
But following a fight between Gillotte and her ex-husband last month, the state placed her kids with relatives until their homelife stabilized.
The back-and-forth moves across state lines and the disruptions at home were traumatic for the children, two of whom have attended four different schools this year, Gillotte noted.
She thinks all of it – the eviction, calling her ex-husband for help and the fight in front of the children – could have been avoided had OHA offered her a lifeline.
“If they gave me resources to help me there, I would probably still be living there, and I wouldn’t have gone through all this mess in my life.”
A missing clause
Rhonda Moses came to eviction court on Sept. 12 with a stack of documents in hand. Most of them featured photos of maintenance problems – a busted heater, a mildewy rug – that she said hadn’t been fixed by OHA in a timely manner.
Mahern, who had been assigned to serve as her volunteer lawyer that morning, flipped through the papers in search of a defense for her client. She found one in a place she didn’t expect.
A letter OHA sent Moses in May to inform her of a rent increase made no mention of her right to challenge the decision.
Federal law requires public housing authorities give tenants an opportunity for a hearing before an impartial party whenever an action is taken that would adversely affect the tenant, including a rent change. No adverse actions should take effect “until the time for the tenant to request a grievance hearing has expired.”
The lease signed by all OHA tenants also obligates the agency to inform residents of their right to a hearing.
“I was gobsmacked,” Mahern said about discovering the missing appeal clause. “You know when something is so obvious you think you got something wrong?”
Public housing authorities should know better than to miss such a basic requirement of a rent-change letter, Walz said.
An attorney for OHA agreed to dismiss the eviction case against Moses. Mahern left court wondering how long the clause had been missing and how many tenants the agency failed to inform of their rights.
A week later, OHA Director of Compliance Susan Gilroy notified other OHA employees of an amendment to the rent-change form, according to emails obtained by Flatwater through a public records request.
“We changed the wording in regard to the grievance hearing rights. Please remove any old form letters,” Gilroy wrote in a Sept. 19 email.
The new letter explains to tenants that they can contest OHA’s decision about their rent by requesting a hearing within five days.
OHA said it does not know how long the grievance clause was absent or how many letters were sent to tenants without it. The agency added that the clause is present in other letters to notify tenants of proposed lease terminations and maintenance charges.
Regardless of whether OHA was justified in raising a tenant’s rent, Mahern said the outcome of a case cannot be correct if tenants were denied due process – just like in a criminal case if a defendant wasn’t read his Miranda rights.
OHA should reverse any rent increases that took effect while the grievance clause was missing, Mahern said. That would require potentially sizable reimbursements to tenants.
Moses, a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home, said she would have appealed OHA’s $394 rent increase had she known of her right to do so.
She believes the agency raised her rent because her daughter Aaliyah got a job (public housing residents’ rent is based on their income). But Aaliyah lost that job a month after the rent-change letter came.
If she had stayed on her old rent, Moses said she could have dodged the eviction notice altogether.
Even though OHA dismissed her case, Moses felt it was only a matter of time before the agency would try to oust her again. She moved out of public housing and found a one-bedroom apartment in central Omaha. Her daughter and grandson found their own place.
Moses didn’t want to move out of her old house, where she liked the neighbors and had enough room for her family. But she’s glad to be done dealing with OHA.
“They don’t tell you stuff that you’re supposed to know,” Moses said. “They just do it.”
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