A Questa man was granted a temporary restraining order against the Northern Regional Housing Authority this month after the organization sent him letters threatening to evict him and to put his natural gas bill in his name, a decision they argue is necessary to be in compliance with Housing and Urban Development Regulations.
Roger Chavez, 68, has lived in the Questa public housing neighborhood for over 20 years. As a man with a fixed income from disability insurance, he said his housing situation was stable until recently.
As the Taos News reported in March, Chavez has received four warning letters and two eviction notices from the NRHA. One notice said the Housing Authority was planning to switch the gas bill NRHA pays into Chavez' name, effectively cutting off his heat, but the injunction Chavez was granted in court this month halted any action.
Chavez and his attorney, Corrina Laszlo-Henry, said the timing of the notices was inconvenient and didn't provide sufficient notice, given that they came in the middle of a one-year lease, which states that NRHA would pay for all utilities.
Representatives from the local NRHA maintain they are simply adhering to standards from Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal program in charge of regional housing authorities nationwide. As a result of the injunction, Natasha Martinez, the deputy director of the Housing Authority since 2020, said they now plan to put Chavez on a utility allowance.
Eighth Judicial District Judge Emilio Chavez granted Chavez and his attorney's request for the restraining order on April 1. In an online hearing Tuesday (April 12), Chavez extended the order by 45 days at the recommendation of NRHA's lawyer, Herman Chico Gallegos. The goal is to have the two parties come to an agreement during that time.
Laszlo-Henry explained to the Taos News that she didn’t expect the NRHA to make their decision to switch Chaves' gas after his most recent one-year lease was renewed in December. “Don't jump the gun — do it in a way that has the correct, proper information disseminated ahead of time,” she said of the way the NRHA should have handled the situation.
Martinez argued that the timing was appropriate, since HUD inspectors are now beginning to perform inspections of their housing units and overall operation again following the worst of the pandemic. She said the rules had not been enforced by the prior deputy director.
“These companies are able to travel and actually come and do a full oversight evaluation on what is going on within the housing authority with the transition, and how they can help make it run a little bit smoother,” she explained.
“We're just kind of following the procedures that are set in front of us,” she said. “We're not in the business of evicting. We're not in the business of letting people be without utilities. We are in the business of housing and helping and providing safe and sanitary living conditions for low-income families.”
She said they are trying to switch Chavez to a utility allowance because he is on an individual gas meter. Previously, the Questa complex was on a master meter (one meter connected to all of the houses), but they were switched to individual meters in 2018.
“HUD has told us they did have a problem with our lease… We should have worded it that if you're on a master meter, the housing authority pays utilities. If you're on an individual meter, then the tenant pays utilities,” she said. “It all comes down to energy conservation. If you're not aware, then you can't conserve.”
Martinez said the NHRA has over 1,000 tenants throughout the state, a majority of which fall under the same guidelines. “They all get a utility allowance. And it's part of self sufficiency, to be able to kind of budget how much gas, water, everything you're using.”
“In contract law, you have a concept called promissory estoppel," Laszlo-Henry said. "Whereas, if you tell me, ‘Yeah, that's fine that your rock garden is there,’ and they told you that 11 years ago, they don't get to say, ‘Well now rules are rules, 11 years later,'” she said, referring the the NRHA’s request that Chavez remove a garden memorial he made for his late son. She said this could apply to any of the changes they are proposing.
“The [utility] allowance has to come first,” said Laszlo-Henry of the process to move forward. “The whole idea is, we put you on individual meters and we give you a prudent allowance schedule,” she said, again, noting that the notification came mid-lease. “These are people whose budgets are extremely tight. So why not sit down with all the residents, call a meeting and ask questions?"
“If nobody takes them to court and sues them and says, ‘This is prohibited by the law,’ then they don't know,” she added.
Chavez said the eviction notices aren’t the only problem he’s had with the housing authority. ”The things they say they'll do, they never do. The things they promise a person to do, or actually do, they don’t do them right,” he said. He also said there was a more “authoritarian” attitude with the new housing authority staff, which has come under the leadership of Executive Director Terry Baca in the past two years.
“We're like prisoners, because if we say anything, we might get in trouble. So we just go along with the program. We just serve our time in our house,” said Chavez. “I really didn't want to say anything, because I know how they do it. I've been here a long time. Do I really want to get involved? Why do I risk myself and my housing by trying to stick up for other people? At this point, I don't mind. I know they can’t kick me out of here for saying things that are true.”