Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

This is a discussion on Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants within the Landlord vs Tenant Issues forum, part of the REAL ESTATE & PROPERTY LAW category; First of all, I know Georgia law allows landlords to re-sell/allocate (without submetering) water/sewer services to tenants through a third ...

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Old Nov 24th, 2007, 09:59 PM   #1
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Default Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

First of all, I know Georgia law allows landlords to re-sell/allocate (without submetering) water/sewer services to tenants through a third party billing service as is being done where I live. Tenants are being extremely abused with water/sewer bills far in excess (double) of what single family home owners are paying in the area.

I find Georgia and federal EPD/EPA rules/regulations for the Safe Drinking Water Act indicating that anyone who supplies water to at least 25 full time residents is an operator of a public water system and required to be permitted by EPD and comply with all the rules/regulations of a public water system.

In Dec. 2003, the EPA ruled that landlords billing tenants for water/sewer services using a submetering system would henceforth not be required to comply with the rules/regulations pertaining to a public water system. However, the EPA specifiacally stated that property owners using an allocation method of billing tenants for water/sewer would still be subject to all the rules/regulations of a public water system.

I say my landlord is selling water without the required permit. Georgia EPD office of compliance, enforcement and permitting says they don't consider apartment owners as operators of a public water system and thus don't need to be permitted even if the owner is using an allocation method of billing.

Georgia EPD says they are not concerned about the safety of the water because it is the same water treated by the county public utility that the landlord pays for the water. I reminded the EPD that water safety is not the only reason for the Safe Drinking Water Act - conservation is another reason. The EPA decided to exempt landlords using submetering from the requirements of a public water system because the EPA is satisfied that submetering results in water conservation. However, the EPA states that they are not satisfied that the allocation method of billing results in water conservation. The idea is to discourage the use of the allocation method and encourage the use of submetering.

States apply to the EPA for primacy (the right to jurisdiction) with the condition that the state granted primacy enforces the federal rules/regulations. Federal law supercedes state law. The EPA doesn't monitor the state's compliance and only acts on complaints. It looks to me like I have to file an official complaint with the EPA so they will look into the matter and make a decision. The EPA can rule against the state and withdraw primacy and federal funds as well as impose a fine. Georgia EPD says they are not concerned about losing primacy or any negative ruling of the EPA.

I'm trying to figure out if I need an attorney who specializes in environmental law in the Atlanta area and one who is well experienced in unfair business practices lawsuits. I think if would be a class action lawsuit and would have far reaching implications as the same problem exists in many other apartment complexes in the Atlanta area as well as around the country.

My landlord owns 70 properties in 10 states with 21,000 apartments and uses the same practices in all of them. I'd be glad to read some comments. There seems to be no precedent case law on the matter. Later, amigos. Lew
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Old Nov 25th, 2007, 12:01 PM   #2
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Default Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

I don't know how Georgia courts would rule on an EPA issue, or even if it would be heard in state or federal court. But since the state office of the EPA hasn't reacted or had any concern about the submetering, I doubt you will get a different answer from the federal level of the same agency. Most likely, any complaints they receive will be forwarded to the state EPA office. The state office has already answered your concerns by telling you that they are not concerned about it. You don't need an attorney specializing in enviromental law. You need to contact the correct agency. Have you tried contacting the Public Utilities Commission? They would be more likely to react if allocation of water bills is not proper. The EPA only cares about the quality of the water. The PUC cares about how utilities are billed.

Many states allow submetering of water bills. The water safety is not a concern as this water is not from the LL's facilities, but has already been tested and assured safe from the public water deprtment from which it flows. Conservation is up to the individual tenant. If a tenant conserves water, it is shown in his bill since his submeter will show less water usage. If he doesn't conserve, his bill will be higher. The same can be said for any individual house. That is the purpose of submetering. To show each tenant their own usage and encourage water conservation. However, if a tenant does not wish to conserve (just as an individual home owner) little can be done to mandate it.

I find that water usage is increased in most apt. units regardless of metering or not. I have had instances of a small 2 BD unit (with only a mother and 2 children) running the water bill up to $80 per month (with no W/D hook-ups, no DW, no outside tap, etc.). How a family of 3 could possibly use this much water is beyond me. But they have consistantly used this amount of water for more than a year. In contrast, my family of 3 used about $25-30 of water a month. While conservation is an admirable goal, I'm afraid many people do not follow it.

Some states also allow submetering without 3rd party billing. In these cases, the LL can submeter, and read the meters himself. He is allowed to calculate the bills and forwarding them to the tenant. The tenant can read his own meter if he wishes to verify that the LL's stated usage is correct.

Some states also allow the allocation method of water billing. Some LLs are allowed to allocate water usage based on individuals per unit or unit size. Many states allow this method instead of requiring the installation of submeters, as long as the bill is split evenly by an approved method. You need to see if this method is approved by your state law and find out how the LL is splitting the bill (per unit, per occupant, per # of BDs, etc.). If it is not allowed, the state can insist that the LL include water usage in your rent. If that happens, each unit's rent will be increased the same amount as the water allocation to pay for that water usage. So you'll end up paying for it either way. Unless you can get your LL to submeter, if this is allowed per your state law, your only recourse may be to move to an individually metered unit.

In your case, try contacting the PUC-G and see what they have to say about this allocation of water bills. If they aren't concerned, it must be allowed there. In that case, save the attorney costs and move to a metered unit.
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Old Nov 25th, 2007, 01:51 PM   #3
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Default Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

Hi OHlandlord: Georgia Public Utilities Commission has jurisdiction over most utilities but not water. The Environmental Protection Division of the Dept. of Natural Resources has jurisdiction over water. The EPA granted primacy to the EPD with the condition that EPD enforces federal rules/regulations as set forth in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Yes, the water is provided by the public utility and should be considered safe. But, safety is not the only issue ddressed by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Conservation is important too. No matter what allocation method is used, the owner is violating the Safe Drinking Water Act rule designating the owner an operator of a public water system and required to be registered as such and have a permit to sell water.

An EPA attorney has said I don't misunderstand the law on this matter. I need to file a complaint with the EPA. I think that will lead to a class action lawsuit. This could set a precendent and lead to a huge problem for landlords across the country. My landlord alone has 70 properties in 10 states with 21,000 apartments. Since they specialize in buying older distressed properties and renovating them, it is likely that they are using the same billing practices at all their properties. I know they use the same third party utility billing service at all their properties.

The RUBS formula method used on this property bills 85% of all water coming into the property including that for common area usage. The formula does not deduct proper amounts used by the pool, spa, laundry room, car wash. The second component of the formula is the number of occupants/unit and the third is the square footage of the unit.

The property manager was given proof that there are more occupants in many units than are on the lease contracts. The number on the lease contracts is used to calculate the allocation/unit. The property manager acknowledges it is impossible to determine how many occupants there are in the apartments. So, how can the formula possibly produce accurate, equitable and fair results? One tenant was gone for 5 months and had to pay as if he was home using water. We have a ban on outdoor water usage in effect. The sprinkler system was on for 22 of the days in Oct. and the tenants will be billed for the illegally used water during a level 4 emergency drought condition in north Georgia. I reported the violation and the water company shut off the irrigation line and told management they would be fined $500/day for future violations.

There is a renovation project underway and many vacancies. Result: the occupied units pay more for the water used in common areas.

Yes, the landlord can rebundle the cost of water/sewer and raise the rent. Bundling would present a problem to the landlord because he prefers to obfuscate by separating the water/sewer costs from the rent knowing that prospective tenants shopping for an apartment are most concerned with the base rent number. Owners of older apartments built before the requirement to be fitted with meters would be at a disadvantage trying to compete with owners of new apartments with meters, lower water/sewer bills and base rent. I'd prefer less obfuscation and more transparency. The owner also has the option to invest in retrofitting submetering, which should include installing low flow plumbing fixtures/faucets/showerheads. I don't mind unbundling water/sewer costs from the rent. I do mind being billed far more than I would pay the public utility for the water used in my unit.

The owner now has contracted with a another gas marketer, which will cost tenants more. I opted out of the change. Most tenants don't understand how they are getting screwed. The same will happen with electricity and tenants will continue to get shafted for higher bills than necessary.

The new owner has bought this older (22 years old) distressed property and is investing in renovation ($10k/unit). He is raising the rent, cost of utilities through third party billing services and making the property appear to be new with a great balance sheet at the end of renovation and reoccupancy. Then, he will sell it for a nice profit. That is all well and good in our capitalistic society but not at the unfair expense of tenants.

I am the kind that would rather fight than switch, when confronted with this kind of abuse. We, the tenants, are banded together and fighting with the strength of numbers. We have the largest newspaper in Atlanta doing a story on the problem. Exposure and bad publicity will not be enjoyed by the owner. I do understand this is like David fighting Goliath. In addition to the billion dollar LL I'll be doing battle with, the Apartment Owners Associations are not opponents to be taken lightly. It will definitely take a top flight law firm to handle the case in court. I feel like Erin Brokovich. I have copies of state and federal codes/statutes and lots of research documents.

He is finally recognizing the fact that this is no small problem and offering to moderate the water/sewer bills. I consider the offer a band-aid on a much bigger problem. He does not yet know that the worst is yet to come.

It is obvious to me that you and I have different interests and perspectives on this matter. You apparently are a landlord and view the matter from a landlords perspective, whose interest is maximizing profit. I on the other hand am a tenant and view the matter as abusive, unfair and illegal. Your comment about moving somewhere else more to my liking is exactly the kind of answer I got from the property manager. He knows I am organizing a revolt/protest. He would love to get rid of me. I just signed a new lease contract and intend to stay for another year and see this thing through to the end (although a court case could take years to ajudicate). Then, I will happily move back to south Florida and enjoy the warm winter weather for the rest of my retirement years. Yes, I'm one of those geezers who has nothing better to do than fight injustice. I really can't stand a condescending property manager who thinks all his tenants are ignorant and will swallow whatever he tells them. Like, he seems to think a tenant can sign his rights away in a lease contract and that isn't so. I signed mine, "In lieu of undisclosed material facts." - and their are some. Like, the contract says, "Resident will be directly billed by Gwinnett County Public Utilities." That isn't so and hasn't been for the last year since the owner took over the property.

I don't expect to pay for a lawyer. An unfair business practices lawsuit will be handled on a contingency basis. The EPA will do what it does as a public service to taxpayers. I'll let you know how this shakes out. Thanks for your feedback. Later, amigo. Lew
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Old Nov 26th, 2007, 12:40 PM   #4
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Default Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

interesting argument, lew. do you believe that conservation is better achieved when water is included "in rent"? theoretically a tenant could leave her tap on all month and not have to pay for the usage......
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Old Nov 26th, 2007, 01:13 PM   #5
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Default Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

Dear Ms./Mr. unregistered: I believe that in places where the landlord is allowed and chooses to charge extra for water/sewer above the base rent, the landlord should retro-fit submetering in buildings built before meters were mandated. There is a good reason for mandating meters in apartments built built since 1992. There is no justification for tenants paying for water they don't use in their apartment. The cost of water usage in common areas should be bundled into the base rent the same as any other operating expense. States that allow landlords to bill back tenants for the cost of 100% of all water used on the property plus the administrative and third party billing service fees are putting an unfair burden on tenants. Allocation formulas are arbitrary at best. If you want to argue about why the EPA decided to exempt owners of properties with 15 or more connections or supply water to 25 or more year round residents who use submetering from complying with public water system regulations and not allow the exemption to those using an allocation method of billing, take it up with the EPA. I hope you find that interesting as well. Later, amigo. Lew
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Old Nov 26th, 2007, 01:28 PM   #6
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Default Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

depending on the age of the property, the plumbing configuration may prohibit a retrofit so that only consumption in a particular unit can be measured. until new technology exists and passes muster with metering standards, allocation--which does show a conservation benefit, is a viable alternative. regarding your specific property, if you believe that 15% is not enough to cover the common area usage that should be borne by the property, you should take that up with your management.

i think your argument that sdwa compliance is more tied to conservation than safety is a bit off. after all it is the "Safe" drinking water act.....
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Old Nov 26th, 2007, 04:33 PM   #7
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Confused Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

You put words in my message that didn't exist. I didn't write that conservation is more important than water safety. What I said was that safety isn't the only thing with which the Safe Drinking Water Act is concerned and that conservation is also a factor. If you need an EPA quote, read the following from the Federal Register Dec. 23, 2003 (volume 68, number 246), notices, pg. 74233-74235. From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov] [DOCID: fr23de03-57.

Applicability of the Safe Drinking Water Act to Submetered Properties Docket: OW-2003-0065

AGENCY: Environmental Protection Agency.

ACTION: Notice.

SUMMARY: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a memorandum that outlined its revised policy regarding regulatory requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for submetered properties. The revised policy is shown in the SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION section of this notice, in its final memorandum for. Under SDWA section 1411, the national primary drinking water regulations apply to public water systems (PWS) that have their own water source, treat, or "sell" water. EPA staff and program managers have previously issued memoranda stating that any building or property owner who meets the definition of a PWS and receives water from a regulated public water system, but bills tenants separately for this water, is "selling" the water and therefore is independently subject to SDWA's drinking water requirements. As a way to promote full cost and conservation pricing to achieve water conservation, the EPA is changing its interpretation of section 1411 as it applies to submetered properties. EPA believes that the addition of a submeter should not in any way change the quality of water provided to the customers on these properties."

"In general, the scope of this policy is not intended to extend where the property in question has a large distribution system, serves a large population or serves a mixed (commercial/residential) population (e.g., many military installations/facilities or large mobile home parks)." End of summary.

I'll skip to the part about Ratio Utility Billing Systems (RUBS) and Hybrid Billing Systems (HWH).

"Several commenters raised the issue of ratio utility billing systems (RUBS) and other allocation billing systems. Some commenters suggested that EPA should include this type of billing in the revised policy because it would have no negative effect on water quality. Other commenters encouraged EPA to exclude RUBS, stating that RUBS may not result in water conservation, and may, in fact, reduce incentives to install submeters and charge on the basis of actual water usage. Water savings, if any, from RUBS and hot water hybrid billing systems (HWH) are uncertain. At this time, EPA believes that RUBS or other allocation billing systems do not meet the definition of submetering, as used in this policy, and do not encourage water conservation. Therefore, a property using these billing systems is not addressed by this policy (in other words, allocation is still considered "selling"). Primacy Agencies will need to determine whether such properties are "selling" water within the meaning of SDWA section 1411."

I'm waiting on a call from the EPA Region IV office to clarify matters further. If the states are given primacy including the right to make their own determination as to who is "selling" water, then the states have the right to ignore the EPA's ruling. I'm not a lawyer but an EPA attorney says I have a good question. The entire 6 page document is designated FR Doc 03-31588. Later, amigo. Lew
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Old Nov 26th, 2007, 05:09 PM   #8
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Default Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

having been billed by an allocation method for some time, my individual conservation drives the total master metered bill down and therefore my portion of it. the tenants at my property all know this and we "globally" conserve.

the epa ruling not to exempt allocation doesn't make a lot of sense. most states say that providing water to tenants is not "selling" water and there is a requirement of dedication to the public to be classified as a reseller, i.e. public utility. states like texas do it right by mandating metering on new construction and grandfathering in existing properties that can't retrofit. there are a few studies that show a conservation benefit from rubs--but its a battle of the studies and the epa did one that didn't show as much.

regardless, it will be up to the state.
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Old Nov 26th, 2007, 07:45 PM   #9
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Confused Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

With 228 units in our complex and an unknown number of occupants it is impossible to allocate fairly. The RUBS formula uses the number of occupants and the size of a unit. I have proven to the property manager that there are more people in units than are on the lease contract. How can the bill be split equitably with 20% of units vacant. There are fewer tenants to share the common area water usage. Lots of vacancies because of a renovation project as well as lots of unhappy tenants over soaring water/sewer bills. Some tenants are floored when they receive their first water/sewer bill and move out within 3 months. There is no way you can convince me that tenants without a meter at their unit have any incentive to conserve water. Furthermore, the owner has no incentive either because he recovers the cost from the tenants. If the owner had any interest in conserving water, he would have had new water-saving toilets, showerheads and faucets installed during the renovation project. Last year, my water bill was $35/mo. for two in a one bdrm. The new owner took over and contracted with a third party billing service and my bill is now $70 for one in a one bdrm. including a new charge for trash. Some tenants pay $100 in a two bdrm. If allocating saves water, how come our bills have doubled in the past year? The answer is a greedy landlord who uses unfair business practices. BTW, the owner is responding to the pressure of so many complaints and reducing the water/sewer bills. I'm still burned up about using an inaccurate, unfair and maybe illegal allocation method. I've won a battle but there is still a war to be fought. Later, amigo. Lew
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Old Nov 26th, 2007, 11:53 PM   #10
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Default Re: Georgia landlord allocating water/sewer bills to tenants

As a LL, I have tried to implement water conservation in my properties, whether individually metered or not. However, with some tenants, these efforts are in vain. I just received the keys back to 2 units in the last 2 weeks. My water saving showerheads had been removed in both by the tenants and replaced with their own showerheads. A bath faucet in one unit and a kitchen faucet in another had been replaced without my permission (even though the faucets in those units weren't that old). They don't seem to be worried about conserving water at all, in fact they are purposefully changing out my water saving features for those that use more water.

The fact is that many people aren't at all concerned about conservation of our resources at all whether it be water, gas, electric, fuel for cars, recycling of materials, or even donating still useful items to a charity so someone else can use them. I find that a certain mindset of some people is that they just don't care. They will use more water on purpose, run the heat with the windows open, drive huge gas guzzling cars to places a very short distance away, and refuse to recycle any item, no matter if it still works or has life left in it.

Personally, I recycle most materials -paper, cardboard, glass, cans, aluminum, even old plumbing or wiring I take out of a house. I even have a compost pile in my yard. But that's just me. I refuse to buy an SUV or any other large car, or even a new car every couple of years like most. In fact, we drive our cars until they are getting to be beyond fixing, then buy a good used car as our "new" one. I shop thrift stores for items that I can use in the rentals, often finding replacement globes for light fixtures, curtains or blinds, storm doors, etc. I buy mismixed paint for the walls (the results actually look very good if you choose the right colors - better than beige!) And I try to recycle whatever the tenants leave at a unit if they do not claim it within the state's time period.

I do wish more people would be concerned with our resources (water included). However, I have no control over what they chose to do or not to do in the way of conservation.

As for the formula that your complex uses, I find it to be illogical. Some of my places may have 0% common water usage (no laundries or sprinkling systems). In others, the 15% subtracted for common areas may be too low. I also do not understand how the number of bedrooms has anything to do with water usage. Just because you have a spare BD doesn't mean that anyone is living in it or using any water. Really, the only way to allocate water usage is per person. If your complex doesn't keep track of who actually lives in their units (I do and require that all occupants or guests over 3 days are registered), I don't know how they can be dividing per person. The only possible way they could divide it would be per unit.

I know the system doesn't seem fair, but in many places it is an allowable practice. I doubt your case will change this system nationwise. If so, many places will just raise the rents to accomodate for it. (And they will all have to do it if it were to become law.) Let us know how this turns out for you.
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