More than 30 community members and residents of General Services Corporation (GSC) properties gathered Saturday to confront what several called predatory water bill pricing. They hand-delivered letters of protest to five GSC properties, including Ridgewood, Royal Park, University Lake, Carolina Apartments and Estes Park.
“We are here to send a message to GSC management — we’re here to ask them to do the right thing,” said Rev. Nathan Hollister, who is responsible for spearheading the community’s response to GSC’s business practices.
The letter asked GSC management to meet with Hollister and other leaders, replace the third party Florida-based water monitoring company with the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, a local utilities company, and provide a point of contact for future tenant grievances.
Tenants gave GSC one week to respond to demands, promising future action if the letter is ignored.
Carrboro resident Madison Hayes said the struggle against GSC began two years ago when the company announced it would no longer accept Section 8 housing vouchers, which provide rent assistance for underprivileged families.
“We saw a mass exodus of mostly low-income families from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, a lot of whom received an eviction notice and were told that they had to vacate their home within 30 days,” Hayes said. “There’s no other affordable housing in the area, so families had to quit jobs, find transportation, pack up their homes, uproot their kids from school and ship off to find someplace else to live.”
A grassroots approach was the tenants’ only option, Hayes said.
“We’ve been in communication with the town, but there hasn’t been anything they’ve been able to do, and there is no other entity in place that can respond to the predatory actions that this company has been taking on low-income families in the area,” she said.
A history of protests
General Services Corporation stopped accepting the Section 8 vouchers from residents in 2013.
In October, Hollister brought a petition before the Carrboro Board of Aldermen with more than 100 signatures from residents protesting the water bill rates. It also addressed GSC’s use of an out-of-state utilities company.
Monitoring usage from Florida hampers communication about bills between the company, GSC and tenants, and is especially tough to navigate for those who speak English as a second language, Hollister said.
GSC’s Estes Park property is home to many refugees from Myanmar, many of whom only speak broken English, Hollister said. About 10 of the refugees were present to protest the high water bills.
Other residents, such as Judy Callahan, a tenant of Carolina Apartments, also turned out for the protest to challenge the steadily increasing and inexplicably high water bills.
Callahan said has received two monthly water bills of $60, though she does not own a washing machine and uses her dishwasher only twice weekly. Her first water bill, which covered the period of time from July 2012 to December 2012, totaled $190. When she complained, she was told that it was her responsibility to call and sort it out.
“I said, ‘Call who? I don’t even know who you are!’” she said.
Marc Bennett, a resident of the Chapel Hill apartment complex Kingswood, another GSC property, described the billing practices as arbitrary.
“I suspect that they are aggregating, meaning that they are looking at usage and dividing by the number of residents,” he said.
“It’s not, ‘How much water am I using?’ — that’s not what’s reflected on my bill.”
Bennett also described his most recent run-in with GSC management. For the past six months, his sinks have backed up with sewage water. After GSC repeatedly ignored his complaints, he called the town.
“Once Kingswood found out that I alerted the city, they ran out here,” he said. “They know they’re wrong, but this has been going on a long time.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story mischaracterized the water bills of Carrboro resident Judy Callahan, a tenant of Carolina Apartments. Her first water bill was for $190, but it covered the entire period of time from July 2012 through December 2012. She also said she’s received only two monthly bills of $60.
The story also included a headline that misstated the day of the protest, which took place on Saturday.
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