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

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.

CES_Logo_MainThe 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.


25 Comments
  1. I agree that leaving things as they are is undesirable so I’m certainly not advocating that. I would prefer real accountability that would drastically lower our water use. The existence of bad actors is not a silly argument but rather the reason we are discussing this problem in the first place.

    Phasing out will take many decades. If our goal is real water conservation as we are in a severe drought that could last decades we need to be bolder. My concern is that RUBS is only patching up the issue and delays real improvement. Is there actual evidence that RUBS results in net water conservation? Maybe then it could be an interim solution but now where is the owner’s incentive to pursue more meaningful structural changes? Meanwhile tenants are stuck paying for someone else’s water.

    Ideally we need government to provide leadership (as it does on emission standards however imperfectly) by mandating, legislating and subsidizing. I would like to see a more meaningful change than just shifting the costs.

  2. Mike it is very simple: asking people to pay their share – without accurately measuring what their share is – is inherently and unarguably unfair as it does not reflect their own personal use but an assumption of their use.

    The person who conserves water or is hardly ever there has to pick up the tab for the wasteful person next door who showers and does laundry all day and washes their car with the building hose every day. These contrasts are hardly far fetched. I have neighbors that leave sprinklers on overnight to water grass.

    As to your second question, a real solution has to be helped by, if not conceived by the state: tax incentives to change plumbing, adjust regulations to allow plumbing systems that support individual meters, mandatory for any new building, etc etc.

    In the meantime, as a landlord I tell my tenants that any water savings through less use will be passed on to them, informally via a year-end thank you note and gift card.

    1. Regarding submetering, the state can only make those requirements going forward for new construction. SB7 (will be taken up next year) has that sort of language. I think you are severely underestimating the costs of what you are proposing. The mandate for new construction will eventually phase out RUBS.
      So that leaves us with properties that can’t be metered. The comparison is between in-rent billing and RUBS. RUBS is better for conservation.
      If everyone uses less, the amount that is divvied up is less and your bill is less. The existence of bad actors is a silly reason to throw away the whole program.
      Ultimately, you’re advocating for leaving things the way they are. Which I think is the worst possible result.

  3. Mike, RUBS seems messy in the sense of vague and unfair as there seems to be another layer of administration and a third party bill collector but most importantly it is near impossible to have fair accounting and billing without individual meters. Square footage or occupancy means very little. And some owners waste more water via faulty sprinklers than all their tenants combined.

    I’m no fan of the current system where tenants can waste water all day long with no accountability at the owner’s expense. Hopefully the technology you mention or something similar will be allowed or adjusted to meet regulations asap, you seem to know much more about it. I hope individual meters are the future.

    1. That’s why I’m asking you to unpack why it’s “unfair” instead of just alleging that it’s unfair. Most owners take a percentage deduction for common areas and irrigation.
      You say you don’t like the current system and you don’t like RUBS. What’s your solution?

  4. Yes, as I mentioned in another thread, almost every apartment building on my block waters the sidewalk, lawns and cars every day. 90% of that water is wasted, I don’t think the tenants would take kindly to being asked to share the water bill for that obscene waste.

    Other than that I’m all for accountability and responsibility. But RUBS just sounds like a murky and administrative mess. Is it so difficult to install separate meters? The state should surely subsidize them as they do low flow shower heads and energy efficient bulbs etc.

    Tenants could/should get a small token rent reduction to account for any shift in costs that get transferred on to them. In the end everybody wins.

    BTW, why do we still flush our toilets with drinking water?

    1. Yes, it is difficult to install meters. Many buildings are not plumbed in a way that allows for the measurement of water in a unit with a single submeter. These are “cross plumbed” or “riser” systems. The technology that exists to solve this scenario are not allowed existing CA regulations (point of use submeters).

  5. I live in one of the rental households where water use has probably been about the same as it was before April. Why? Because we had already been doing just about everything that can be done. We didn’t wait for Brown’s mandate to take dramatic action. We now have a single plant — a cactus that is outdoors. I lather with the water off and even let it mellow when it’s yellow (unless there are guests).

    More could be done at our property to conserve, but they’re not things tenants control. They are things like covering or draining the pool that almost no one uses, not watering our complex’s outdoor plants, or perhaps having more water friendly toilet tanks and shower heads (though they may already be). Two days ago, I called our property manager because our toilet is making a sound and may be running — I’m not quite sure. So far, no response. I always call immediately when there’s a leak, and even bottled the water that was leaking until it was fixed.

    Meanwhile, our neighboring complex waters not only the lawn, but also the sidewalk, as do many single family homes that have lawns.

    We’re doing our part, and I suspect that is true of many, many other tenants, too.

  6. Mike, you have totally missed the point of both of my posts and have tried to guess what I really really meant, etc.

  7. In my apartment building there are tenants that have many guests that stay over for days, weeks and months and I’m sure they are taking showers every day and using more water than the other tenants without extra long staying guests. So how would this every work out and be monitored?

    1. These may be potential violations of lease terms regarding guests, jerome. Not a rationale to avoid providing price signals to residents.

      1. Well my apartment building and many others do not have an onsite manager so even though these are definite violations they are not monitored or enforced. Thus, it’s not a balanced system in water usage, etc.

        1. Jerome, I can see what you want. Policy is less important to you than having an unattainably perfect billing program. In non-drought circumstances, your arg may carry more weight. But to allow you and an entire segment of users to be able to use unlimited amounts of water while paying a flat fee is not a solution to the larger problem. Only to your narrow one.

  8. Larry, this opinion piece is as cynical as a Hezbollah recruiting video. Instead of aligning incentives to work together to save our precious scarce resources of clean water in an unprecedented drought, you are willing to sacrifice that precious resource to perpetuate your never ending us vs. them culture war of landlord vs tenant. You stubbornly refuse to accept economics and will insist the world is flat until your bitter demise. Your 35 years of radical rent control has done nothing to increase the supply of housing or the affordability of it. You sit in the comfort of your rent controlled apt and write propoganda pieces while being subsidized by those who just moved here and overpay to compensate for your ridiculously low rent. Your building owner has to charge us way to make up for the huge loss they incur subsidizing you for life. Your endorsement from the Santa Monicans for Renters Rights is just as cynical, it’s a coincidence that they are reading the West Hollywood local paper. We don’t think it’s fair, everyone should pay their fair share, and reject your cynical culture war!

  9. The only way to have a “basis in fact” would be to have meters. That can’t always be done. RUBS is a better option than in-rent billing, particularly in the midst of a drought. *shrug* RUBS is a widespread practice because it is better policy than in-rent. Everyone should have a stake in conservation. paying a flat fee through rent for unlimited water isn’t good policy.

  10. RUBS: In Santa Monica, a very large building hired a company that attempted this practice. It was found to have made up costs having no real basis in fact. The building had attached commercial uses. There was no breakdown provided to tenants, so water used by the commercial uses could have been paid for by tenants along with landscaping. It charged tenants an additional fee on top for the privilege of being billed erroneously. The City Attorney investigated and stopped the practice.

  11. This piece leaves out that in-rent billing provides zero price signal to residents. From an economic perspective, the resident is paying a flat fee (built into rent) and can use unlimited water. It is difficult to conserve or manage what you don’t measure. RUBS provides a price signal. Metering provides the best price signal. In rent billing does not.

  12. Close on sight laundries?!?!? That is a completely unnecessary proposal, inefficient appliances and stalled leak repair is by far the most wasteful practice.

  13. In the Condo I live in since 1988 still has the same old washers and dryers that are as efficient as new ones. We are stuck with a long contract and the company refuses to replace the machine unless we extend the contract for 20 years. It’s just a matter of time before we replace them. I have proposed to someone at city hall that a ordanance be passed outlawing these relic’s

  14. The AAGLA’s advocacy of a Ratio Utility Billing System (RUBS) for water in apartment buildings is not about water conservation, it’s about a landlord money grab. A 2004 study by the US Environmental Protection Agency and others found “no evidence that RUBS reduced water use by a statistically significant amount compared with the traditional in-rent arrangement” most buildings follow for water charges. Individual unit sub-metering, with rent reductions for rent stabilized tenants to offset their housing service loss, is the answer. RUBS is a boondoggle. The full EPA study may be read at the Alliance for Water Efficiency’s web site:

    http://www.allianceforwaterefficiency.org/Metering_and_Submetering_Library_Content_Listing.aspx

  15. There ARE ways to encourage tenants to reduce water usage…put weight in toilet water tanks, provide less water use shower nozzles, close down on site laundry washing machines and managers/owners should NOT water lawns, sidewalks, close any spigots that can be used to get water outside around the buildings & contact tenants via notes asking them to reduce water usage.

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