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Wednesday July 29, 2015

Opinion: Landlords New Water Use Survey and Plan to Raise Rents Is All Wet

By Larry Gross

The landlord group, Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA), just released a survey that it conducted that claims that more than 86 percent of rental property owners in greater Los Angeles who pay for tenants' water have seen usage increase or no change in water usage since Gov. Jerry Brown first mandated statewide restrictions in April.

But this survey is, by no means, a scientifically conducted survey, thus the accuracy, as well as the motivation behind it, must be questioned.

The Coalition for Economic Survival believes that this survey is nothing more than a disingenuous and opportunistic attempt to win support for landlords' effort to do an end-run around existing rent control laws and tenant protections in order to get more money from tenants in the form of increased rents.

Because the cost of water is included in the rent, landlords claim that tenants have no incentive to conserve water, thus have little concerns about letting their faucets run and not report leaks, which then results in landlords facing increased water bills.

However, the L.A. Department of Water and Power recently reported that Los Angeles has cut water use by about 13 percent over the last 12 months and is half way toward meeting LA Mayor Eric Garcetti's call to slash water consumption by 20 percent by 2017.

The State Water Resources Board also recently announced that there was a 25 percent drop in water usage in May in the Southeast Coast region, which includes West Hollywood.

Given that over 60 percent of L.A. residents are renters and over 80 percent of West Hollywood residents are renters, these water conservation achievements could not have been obtained without significant participation of tenants.

Nevertheless, we all have a responsibility to conserve water. This is a real crisis that requires tenants, landlords, homeowners and businesses to all do their part.

But AAGLA's plan appears to be nothing more than another landlord scheme, which clearly is an attempt to take advantage of our water drought crisis to shift financial responsibility to tenants who can least afford to pay more.

What the landlord group is advocating for essentially is an arbitrary water allocation and billing practice referred to as Ratio Utility Billing System or "RUBS."

RUBS allows the landlord to charge for water use by some ratio like the number of residents in the unit, the number of bedrooms or perhaps by the square footage. All of these systems assume constant and equal water usage based on the arbitrary ratios. But without sub meters for each unit, chances are that water use and charges will be inaccurate, with some tenants ending up overpaying for their usage and some underpaying.

It is unclear whether tenants would be responsible for the cost of the landlord watering lawns, or operating water-inefficient washing machines or cleaning the property's common areas.

Also, this system would include the controversial use of a third party bill collector, which would mean additional administrative costs to tenants, above and beyond the water charges.

There have been problems where RUBS is currently being used. Some landlords have marked up the cost of water to their tenants creating a hidden rent increase in the guise of water billing. In addition, the RUBS billing formulas bear no relationship to actual water usage.

This system provides a substantial incentive to landlords to avoid making needed repairs. What CES has found in assisting renters is that landlords, in many cases, refuse to fix leaky toilets or faucets or repair broken pipes which waste a lot of water. This proposal would provide incentives to landlords' to ignore making needed repairs.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti says he only supports tenants paying for their water usage if they have their own water meters.

"I've been supportive of individual meters so individuals could track their own use," Garcetti said.

L.A. City Council Member Mike Bonin agreed, stating, "The only way to do it is with individual meters. As a drought-fighting tool, you need to have the use tied directly to the cost."

CES believes that first there is a need for an education and outreach campaign to tenants in order to increase their involvement in conservation efforts.

Also, landlords should be required to make their apartment buildings water-efficient by converting their lawns to drought-resistant plants, installing energy and water efficient washing machines, and providing units with low-flow toilets, faucets and shower heads without passing on those costs to tenants. There should be stiff fines to landlords and increased rent reductions to tenants when landlords fail to make quality repairs to leaks in a timely manner.

The installation of sub meters in buildings could be studied, ensuring that tenants would be charged only for what they use. But there would have to be a corresponding reduction in rent to accurately compensate tenants for the full amount of savings to landlords.

We all need to do our part to conserve water in this time of crisis, but the solutions should not be based on bogus landlord plans which only seek to raise tenants' rents.

Larry Gross is the executive director of the tenants' right organization Coalition for Economic Survival, which led the effort to incorporate the City of West Hollywood. CES operates a twice-weekly Tenants' Rights Clinic in West Hollywood's Plummer Park.

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