The city of Hartford on Jan. 6, 2021. Stephen Busemeyer / CT Mirror

A new federal lawsuit from Hartford’s legal aid group claims the city’s housing authority has been overcharging residents for rent — sometimes counting transactions such as returned purchases or the value of charity goods as income when calculating the amount they need to pay each month.

These calculations would result in the tenants paying too much in rent and in some cases facing eviction because of it, according to the civil suit filed in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit, filed by Greater Hartford Legal Aid on Monday, alleges that the Housing Authority of the City of Hartford is in violation of federal law, which has certain regulations about how low-income families’ rent payments should be calculated. Public housing tenants’ rent costs are supposed to be only about 30% of their incomes, and very poor tenants can pay a minimum of $50 a month. Even the $50 minimum has certain exemptions for families that have a loss of income, according to the lawsuit.

“The city was actively involved in an effort to resolve the issues and concerns raised by GHLA in the lawsuit filed today,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said in a statement issued through a spokesman.

Because of the conversations, the housing authority and legal aid reached agreement on a “number of important substantive issues,” the statement said.

“While those discussions resulted in agreement on changes that are already being implemented, in the end the parties could not come to terms on a court-supervised settlement,” Bronin’s statement says. “That’s unfortunate, but what’s most important is that changes have already been made that are the right thing to do for the tenants of the Housing Authority, and that shouldn’t be affected by this litigation.”

The lawsuit alleges the housing authority, which receives federal money, has been counting donations such as food or toiletries from food pantries and charities as income.

In one case, the housing authority said William Wright, a public housing tenant, received income worth $10 per week for toilet paper, $10 per week for toothpaste, and $10 per week for cleaning supplies, according to a Tuesday press release about the lawsuit.

In another case, the housing authority calculated on the 2021 form an “income” of $1,000 for clothing Wright got from charity, according to the release.

“The presumed values of donated items were considered income even if they were not regularly received and the value was inflated,” the press release says.

The housing authority also counted every deposit to a tenant’s bank or Cash App, including tax refunds, reimbursements and returned purchases as income, the lawsuit alleges. Federal law doesn’t count these things as income, the lawsuit states.

The housing authority was also “annualizing” the transactions it counted as income, the lawsuit alleges. If there was a one-time donation or deposit into a bank or Cash App account, the housing authority would “arbitrarily assume” that the “income” was received monthly or weekly and multiply the value either by 52 weeks or 12 months, the suit claims.

For example, Johnesha Harrison, a single mother who lived in public housing, bought a phone for $150. It didn’t work, so she returned it. The seller sent her the $150 to her Cash App, which the housing authority annualized, the suit states.

In total, the returned phone was counted as $1,800 in annual income, according to the lawsuit.

In another instance, Harrison sent a friend $60 on Cash App in February 2023. He declined the payment, and it went back to her bank account. The housing authority counted that as regular monthly income, according to the lawsuit.

All this led to tenants paying higher rent charges, in some cases resulting in evictions when tenants couldn’t pay, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result of HACH’s illegal practices, low-income and no-income families are being charged higher rent amounts than they can afford,” says the complaint. “HACH then subjects families who are tenants to eviction proceedings when they are unable to pay HACH’s inflated rents without following the proper grievance procedures.”

Evictions have been tied to negative health and mental health outcomes for tenants. An eviction can also put any housing assistance in jeopardy and make it difficult for renters to find a new place to live, even for years after the eviction occurs.

The lawsuit also alleges the housing authority doesn’t properly train its staff about what qualifies as income or investigate “to determine if families actually receive support in regular weekly or monthly intervals, but assumes that they do when calculating families’ rent payments.”

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.