Water bill complaints overflow

Howard tenants call unmetered charges by landlords unfair

March 17, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Roberto Reyes expects to pay more than $400 this year for water and sewer service in the Columbia apartment he shares with his wife and two children.

To Reyes, it feels like a double economic punch. Those costs had been included in his rent until five months ago. And the new bill is 60 percent higher than the $250 a year that experts say a family of four typically pays for water and sewer service in Howard County.

"For that much money, I should have a big house," said Reyes, 44, a teacher who lives in the Dorsey's Forge apartments. "I am being taken advantage of."

Other angry renters and tenants'-rights advocates agree, calling the fast-spreading practice of billing unmetered tenants such as Reyes for water a hidden rent increase at best and an outrageous rip-off at worst.

The new bills are putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of the owners of some of the largest apartment complexes in Howard County with no accountability, residents say, while producing tidy profits for the national billing companies that sold the concept.

The companies that do the billing say it promotes conservation and turns what had been a growing cost for landlords into a new source of revenue.

It's fair, they say, because costs are divided based on the number of people or number of bedrooms in each apartment.

"My company has recovered millions [of dollars] for clients ... and that should continue to grow," said Bill Griffin, vice president and general counsel for Santa Ana, Calif.-based National Water and Power Inc., which bills the 1,350-unit Town and Country Greensview/West in Ellicott City, Howard's largest complex.

Renters point out that because no meters are used, the bills have no direct relationship to the real use of water and sewer service.

A careful person who uses the dishwasher once a week will pay the same amount as a careless one who leaves the water running all day, angry tenants say.

"It's so irritating to hear my upstairs neighbor's water running," said Tara Washington, 35, who lives with her two daughters in Columbia's Hannibal Grove apartments.

Washington, who pays close to $40 each month for her water and sewer service, said she has tried to cut back, limiting dishwashing and turning off the faucet while she brushes her teeth. But the drone of neighbors' water running is beginning to affect her:

"I sit there and I listen, and I think, `I'm paying for that.'"

The use of unmetered water billing systems - called RUBS in the industry - is well-established in other parts of the country, particularly Western and Southern states such as California and Texas, where water shortages are common.

Almost everywhere RUBS have appeared in recent years, they have sparked protests and, in some cases, led to increased regulation.

The practice has been declared illegal in some areas of Florida. The North Carolina Utilities Commission will soon consider rules that would ban RUBS.

Oregon requires that service fees be described in the rental agreement and penalizes landlords for failing to advise tenants of RUBS billing. Texas requires landlords or companies that administer RUBS to register with the government and forbids them from making a profit from selling water.

New in Maryland

Unmetered billing in Maryland began relatively recently. In Howard, the four apartment complexes known to have converted to the practice have done so over the past year or so. And some apartments in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties use RUBS.

Montgomery officials have heard a chorus of tenant complaints about unmetered billing, and a study committee is drafting regulations for the practice.

No such safeguards exist for tenants in Howard County. RUBS are legal in Maryland, and there is nothing to stop companies from reselling water for a profit, Howard officials say.

One Howard property owner using RUBS acknowledges that the system isn't perfect but says it is the best answer to rising water costs.

"It's not an exact science, but it is legal," said James Dolphin, chief financial officer for Town and Country Management, a Baltimore real estate investment trust that owns and operates Town and Country/Greensview West.

Dolphin said his company hopes to do more to explain the billing to tenants. "We're not particularly interested in having an adversarial relationship with our residents," he said.

An official at Berkshire Realty Holdings LP, a Boston partnership that owns the Seasons, Hannibal Grove and Dorsey's Forge, the other three Howard apartment complexes known to use RUBS, declined to comment.

Howard officials fear that the billing practice could place a heavy burden on hundreds of low-income apartment tenants.

"If it's left unchecked, some unscrupulous landlord could drive the price right through the roof," said Leonard S. Vaughn, executive director of Howard County's housing commission.

Experts say a typical water and sewer bill for a Howard family of four should be about $250 a year, roughly $21 a month.

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