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Al Jazeera America

Friday August 21, 2015

California's New Water War Pits Landlords Against Tenants
Los Angeles area rent-controlled apartment building owners want tenants to pay for water as rates rise due to drought

By Haya El Nasser

LOS ANGELES — California's historic drought has provoked more friction between two groups often at loggerheads: landlords and tenants.

Apartment building owners are crying foul over rent control laws that don't allow them to bill tenants for their water use.

The state is in a fourth year of a severe drought, and the governor has ordered 25 percent cuts in urban water use. Now utility bills are expected to rise.

Landlords in LA want to institute a ratio utility billing system, which would allocate water on the basis of apartment size and number of occupants. Under that proposal, water bills would go directly to the tenant, through a third-party billing system. If they use more than allocated, they would pay more.

"We just see this whole thing as disingenuous on the part of landlords," said Larry Gross, the executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenants' rights group. "It's a surcharge."

Landlords say that's not the case. They're advocating for a rent reduction in return for the water allocation system, something they claim could save money for renters who conserve water.

Most apartment buildings, in which 62 percent of Los Angeles area residents live, don't have individual water meters. Most units were built decades ago, when water was cheap, and landlords installed a master meter for each building and folded the cost of water into people's rents.

But now water expensive, and residents who use too much could face stiff penalties.

"We cannot control the usage inside the apartment," said Earle Vaughan, who owns several apartment buildings, with an average rent of $950 a month for a one-bedroom. "The thing that scares owners to death, including myself, is when they're talking about water penalties."

He said his water bills have gone up 7 to 8 percent this year. "Water and sewer charges are greater than my property tax," he said.

A survey by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles showed that more than 86 percent of rental property owners who pay for tenants' water have seen water usage increase or stay the same since Gov. Jerry Brown mandated statewide restrictions in April.

"In Los Angeles and a number of other cities subject to rent control, we cannot pass through the fines to actual users of the water, which, quite frankly, we don't think is fair," said James Clarke, the executive vice president of the apartment association. "Putting a bill into users' and residents' hands is a big part of getting people to conserve."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has made it clear that he is not in favor of RUBS. Nor are tenants' rights advocates, but most would not object to water meters for each unit. That's not likely to happen anytime soon, however. The cost of installation ranges from $3,500 to $10,000 per meter.

"Our hands are tied in two ways," Clarke said. "Our hands are tied by [the Department of Water and Power] that wants to charge so much for submetering, and our hands are tied because of rent control."

Gross said he doesn't believe that tenants are not doing their share to conserve water. Without them, Los Angeles wouldn't have been able to reduce water use 13 percent since last year, he said.

"It just doesn't add up," he said. "If they were really concerned about conservation, my questions to them is, Have they ensured that all apartments have low-flow devices in toilets, showerheads and faucets? Have they responded when tenants complained of leaky faucets?"

Vaughan said that if he's notified of a water leak, he's there the next day. "Water conservation is a communal effort, and there's one community of people who have no incentives to save water," he said of renters.

Not according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Preliminary data for the first half of this year show that water used in apartments and condominiums is down 10 percent since 2013, said spokeswoman Michelle Figueroa.

"There are many questions about how building owners can use water submeters to bill their tenants directly," she wrote in an email. "This is a decision that will have to be made by the property owner, considering the costs and benefits to implementing them."

It's easier to install individual meters during construction than to retrofit existing buildings. Developers of new downtown apartments are doing just that and building the cost into the rent.

Vaughan would like to see the water company lower its meter installation prices or offer some incentives similar to the ones it has doled out to people who rip out their lawns. "We brought this up several times, but there's been no response," he said. "Considering the severity of the drought, it shows a lack of political will."

Bertha Alvarez, 54, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Harvard Heights, a Central Los Angeles neighborhood. She has been on disability from her job as a retail store assistant manager since December. She pays $690 a month for the apartment, through Section 8 federal housing subsidies.

"I think it'll be a burden," she said of landlords' push for RUBS. "For years, we haven't paid water bills, so why start now?"

She said landlords may be unhappy, but she has her share of complaints about her landlord, including no response to her requests for repairs.

"Like, I said, I'm on a fixed income," Alvarez said. "So for me, it's going to be very hard. How are seniors going to pay for that?"

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