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89.3 KPCC

Monday April 20, 2015

Drought: LA Landlords Lobby To Pass On Water Bills To Tenants. Should They?
Landlords are lobbying officials in Los Angeles to be allowed to go around rent control and make tenants pay for water use - which they said will improve conservation efforts.

By Leo Duran

A running faucet sends about two gallons of water down the drain every minute. (R/DV/RS via Flickr Creative Commons)

The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, a local group that represents landlords, is lobbying Mayor Eric Garcetti to back a proposal that calls for renters in rent-controlled buildings to collectively pay their building's monthly water bill, in exchange for slightly-reduced rents. The city estimates that about 60 percent of tenants do not currently pay for their own water.

"There are many leases out there that say water is included," says Jim Clarke, executive vice president of the Apartment Association of Greater L.A. "We want to find some way for [renters] to be incentivized to conserve water."

Landlords of buildings protected by L.A.'s rent-stabilization ordinance can't change the terms of leases that are in effect by doing things like shifting over responsibility for paying for water usage. They can only do that when new tenants move in.

Earl Vaughn pays the water in the six rental properties he owns in Southern California. At one of his properties, 7-unit building in Echo Park, the annual water bill totals nearly $5000, exceeding its annual property tax bill.

He said despite all the media coverage on the drought, his tenants have not cut usage in the past year.

"It's human nature that when you don't pay for something, you're not as conscious of its usage," Vaughn said. "When the Governor goes around the state saying, 'We need to cut back on water,' how can I possibly do that in my building? I'm going to get penalized for something I can't control."

He said he doesn't want to be "the water police" to his tenants.

If the plan is approved, tenants in rent-stabilized apartments could start receiving water bills in as little as six months, Clarke said.

Apartments that are not rent-stabilized would be unaffected; landlords can currently shift the water bills to tenants if they choose.

The city would not install water meters for each tenant. Rather, the proposal calls for tenants to share the cost of the building's main water bill. A third-party would be appointed to determine a formula to decide how much each unit should pay - for instance, based on the size of the unit.

Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which fights for tenants' rights, said the plan could cause water wars within buildings if individual meters are not installed.

"If we're going to pass on water to tenants," he says, "then it should be based on actual use of tenants and not some type of formula."

Gross agrees, however, that all tenants need to be more aware of the water they use and to conserve.

"I think that's what's lacking is education," he said.

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