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County regrets threatening to evict residents of Orchard Bluff

"Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority officials admitted this week they frightened and mistreated several residents of Orchard Bluff, a mobile home park in Port Orchard that's owned and operated by the quasi-governmental agency.It's very unfortunate that this happened this way, said County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, chairwoman of the Housing Authority board. We are truly sorry for any disruption this may have caused among residents.But as far as residents are concerned, those sentiments are too little too late. Several Orchard Bluff residents, upset by eviction notices sent under the Housing Authority's auspices, plan to meet soon with a lawyer and could pursue a class-action lawsuit against the authority.We learned some hard lessons, conceded Sarah Lee, a public relations professional who owns Rich Passage Public Affairs and represents the Housing Authority. Calls to managers of the housing authority, including director Norm McLaughlin, were redirected to Lee. If we could do it all over again, we would have held a public meeting for the residents, who are elderly and retired folks on fixed incomes, to explain the notices before issuing them, Lee said.One by one, notices to terminate tenancy without cause began to arrive in the mail last year, but primarily this spring, as part of what officials now call a bungled lease renewal process. According to Darrel Uptegraft, an attorney for the Housing Authority, the idea was to wipe the slate clean before entering into lease negotiations. Uptegraft said the original leases and state law dictated the authority follow that process.But Dale Magneson, an attorney retained by an Orchard Bluff resident, said the tenant law cited by Uptegraft is moot because the Legislature changed it in 1999. There is no such thing as a notice of termination, Magneson said. It's my opinion that the (Housing Authority) is muscling the very people they should have a heightened sense of responsiblity to protect. We are not amused. But Uptegraft noted that although legislators revised the law, original lease agreements at Orchard Bluff called for such a process whenever new negotiations took place.Orchard Bluff residents hosted a meeting last Thursday, at which Housing Authority representatives explained the process further, reassuring everyone that eviction isn't the plan. The notice, they said, was just a procedural matter.While that explanation may have calmed concerned residents on that point, many are still worried that they are being divided into two classes: Ex-Norseland residents and the newcomers.More than half of all Orchard Bluff residents are former residents of Norseland Mobile Home Estates. They were relocated to Orchard Bluff several years ago as part of a legal settlement over contamination at Norseland. Because of the settlement, ex-Norselanders' rents are tied to inflation, they don't pay for utilities, and late fees are equal to 5 percent of their total rent, which is currently $228 a month. Though newcomers signed similar leases when they joined Orchard Bluff as many as two years ago, the proposed leases don't offer the same protection. Attached to the newcomers' notices were revised rental agreements calling for a 13 percent rent increase ($30 a month), requiring certain tenants to pay for water and slapping a flat fee of $50 on overdue payments. According to Lee, the proposed rent increase was eventually slashed in half because recent studies required by the federal government showed many residents couldn't afford such high rates. Most Orchard Bluff residents make at least 50 percent of the county's median income, but for those who don't, the Housing Authority is implementing rent subsidies.The median income for one person in Kitsap County is $17,450 a year.Meanwhile, former Norseland residents could face a 3 percent rent increase, but they won't pay for water, and the late fee will remain at 5 percent.Targa Real Estate Services, a Federal Way-based property management firm the Housing Authority hired to administer Orchard Bluff, issued the notices, along with letters justifying the rent hikes. Rent hadn't been raised since 1997. Since then, Lee said utility costs have significantly risen because Annapolis Water District raised rates by 27 percent over last year, the cost of electricity rose by 5 percent and sewer rates spiked upward by 11 percent.The letters of explanation, however well-intentioned, failed to alleviate fears among elderly residents who received the notices, many of whom felt pressured to sign them. Betty Titus, an elderly resident, said she and many of her neighbors felt railroaded into signing unfair rental agreements.The approach to this was most definitely intimidating, said Dick Fulton, another resident.According to Marie Anderson, a resident who is president of the Orchard Bluff Homeowners Association, said residents will continue to try to negotiate lower late fees and utility fees for newcomers.We are in the business of creating affordable housing, and we're not going to price anyone out of their homes, Lee said."

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