In July 2019, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM) sent a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) seeking records concerning the agency’s involvement in a plan to demolish or dispose of public housing in Wellston, Missouri. In its request, LSEM sought a full public-interest fee waiver because it had no commercial interest in the records and the requested records would shed light on HUD’s role in operating and managing public housing in Wellston and HUD’s decisionmaking about this housing, including the controversial and widely reported plan to demolish Wellston’s public housing. HUD denied LSEM’s fee-waiver request, and LSEM submitted an administrative appeal explaining the many ways in which it would disseminate the requested records to those interested in the subject, including through several local events with community members; to local elected officials, public housing tenants, business owners, homeowners, and community organizations; and to legal services organizations and affordable housing advocates across the country. While acknowledging all the ways in which LSEM stated it would disseminate the requested records, HUD upheld the denial of LSEM’s request for a public-interest fee waiver, asserting that LSEM’s dissemination would not cover “a reasonably broad group of interested parties.” Shortly thereafter, HUD sent an invoice to LSEM for $2366 as a “down payment” required to process LSEM’s FOIA request.
Represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group, LSEM filed suit alleging that the agency improperly denied its request for a public-interest fee waiver and improperly denied its FOIA request. The lawsuit asks the court to order HUD to produce the requested records at no charge and without delay.