Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Cambridge Housing Authority Deputy Executive Director Michael Johnston speaks in 2010. (Photo: timtoomey.org)

Cambridge Housing Authority Deputy Executive Director Michael Johnston speaks in 2010. (Photo: timtoomey.org)

The Cambridge Housing Authority is trying harder to collect money from former tenants who leave by choice or eviction and still have unpaid bills.

The authority has brought 19 cases in Small Claims Court totaling more than $97,000 against former tenants, according to a memo presented to board members at their Feb. 26 meeting. Last year at this time the public housing agency had only eight small-claims cases pending, for almost $38,000, said Michael Johnston, deputy executive director of the authority. It wasn’t clear whether some or all those cases are included in this year’s total.

The four largest claims involve efforts to recover money from tenants who allegedly lied about their income and should have paid higher rent or may not have been eligible for public housing in the first place. In those cases, the authority is seeking “fraud” repayments of $27,000, $15,565, $6,905 and $6,224, according to the board memo.

The authority started turning to Small Claims Court about two or three years ago and has hired an outside attorney to handle the cases, Johnson said. The lawyer is paid a salary, not a fee based on collections, he said. Such fees have led to abuses in some debt collection cases.

Johnston didn’t know whether the authority has won any of its cases, but the memo said the agency’s willingness to go to court may persuade former tenants to pay up more readily, since a court claim “shows up on the tenant’s credit report.”

“This contributes to improving our chances of collecting in the future,” the memo said.

While the authority pursues some former tenants in court, it has stopped trying to collect from others, including people who have died, moved to a nursing home, left no forwarding address or are homeless. Their bills are far lower than most of the ones in court; one former tenant whose debt was forgiven moved out owing a $21.76 electric bill and is now homeless, according to information in the memo.

This year the board approved $10,374 in write-offs, a tougher stance than last year, when write-offs totaled $26,658.

Seven former tenants have agreed to pay off their bills for a total of $14,869, according to the memo. One person who allegedly defrauded the authority of $15,565 is paying $100 a month and has already repaid $4,350, the memo said.