Patricia Fields believes that the four years she has waited to get her rent money back from the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority is all part of God's plan. The ten-year resident of Glendale Townhomes, a public-housing project in the Prospect Park neighborhood just east of the Mississippi River, is a devout Christian. Her license plate reads "Hosanna." A bumper sticker asks rhetorically, "Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?"
"I'm not a political person at all, so I put all my trust and all my faith in God," says Fields, a single mother of two grown sons. "I just believe there's a place and a time for everything, and this is the time that God ordained."
Five years ago Fields was struggling to make ends meet. She had a job as a telemarketer for catalog retailer Fingerhut but was also relying on food stamps to survive. "I've worked and then I've been unemployed..." Fields recalls of the cycle she was stuck in. "I've worked and then I've been unemployed."
In order to break out of the rut, Fields enrolled in a two-month job-training program offered at Glendale. The classes focused on practical employment skills such as résumé writing and mock interviews. Fields worked hard at the program, and it worked for her: She was able to secure a better-paying job as a security officer for the Veterans Administration Medical Center. Two months later she moved on to the security division of Honeywell, where she continues to work today.
Residents of public housing are generally required to set aside 30 percent of their income to pay rent and utilities. Because of her sporadic employment history, Fields had been paying only $11 per month for her apartment. Under a 1990 federal law known as the Cranston-Gonzalez Affordable Housing Act, as a job-program trainee she was entitled to pay that same rate for 18 months after securing her new job. The law was intended to smooth the transition to economic independence. But shortly after Fields started at Honeywell, her rent skyrocketed to $364 per month. The next year it climbed again, to $397.
Until early 1999, Fields was unaware she was entitled to the extended rent subsidy. When she learned she was eligible, she asked the management at Glendale whether she could get her money back but was told she did not qualify for the benefit. Unsatisfied with that answer, Fields took the issue to officials at the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), where she was again rebuffed.
In frustration Fields turned to James Lee, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. After investigating her claim, Lee began his own dance with the housing authority, but to no avail. "It just seemed like every time we asked, there was some other reason why she couldn't have it," Lee recalls. At one point, for example, the agency contended Fields wasn't eligible because more than six months had passed between the time she completed the job-training program and the time she started her new job--an assertion that Lee proved false.
Eventually Lee decided that the only way Fields was going to get her money back was by going to court. But although she didn't have to pay Legal Aid for Lee's services, Fields had to come up with the $150 fee required to file her lawsuit. "Unfortunately, I don't just have $150 lying around," she laments. "A hundred and fifty dollars is not a lot of money, but if you don't have it..."
This past May, when Fields finally had the money to spare, she filed suit in U.S. District Court against the MPHA and its executive director, Cora McCorvey. The suit seeks the $4,975 Fields paid in excess rent over the 18-month period, plus interest, as well as her legal costs.
That got the MPHA's attention. Rather than rebut Fields's complaint, the housing agency offered to settle; as of last week, the two sides were in the process of working out the details. Lee declines to name the specific dollar amount of the settlement, saying only that Fields will get a "substantial portion" of what she sought. "She won, but I don't really want to show you her checkbook," he says.
Carol Kubic, director of legal services for the MPHA, also refuses to disclose the details of the settlement, citing privacy concerns, but she admits that the agency was in the wrong. "We're a fair agency," Kubic says. "When we recognize that we owe money, we're going pay it." So why did the dispute with Patricia Fields drag on for so long? Kubic says the agency wasn't aware of all the facts in the case until the lawsuit was filed and now concedes that her staff made a mistake in assessing Fields's claim. "She did nothing inappropriate," says Kubic. "She's not getting anything--in my opinion--that she's not entitled to."
Legal Aid's James Lee suspects that other public-housing residents might be missing out on subsidies they're entitled to. Although the federal law that Fields took advantage of has been modified somewhat since 1996, many people who go through job-training programs remain eligible for similar benefits. Lee points to the thousands who have made the transition from welfare to work in recent years. "I don't see them nearly as often as we should, given the number of people who are going back to work and the popularity of the job-training programs," says the attorney. "It's a benefit that I don't think has had nearly the degree of publicity and disclosure that is warranted."