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CITY HALL — At least one Rent Control Board member is concerned that drought response measures could lead to harassment of renters.

As city officials prepare water reduction plans for City Council’s approval, they addressed the board about impacts the proposed plan might have on renters.

An ordinance requiring 20 percent reduction in water usage is expected to come before council early next year. A threshold is created for users who are already consuming small amounts of water. If a user is over the threshold, they will be expected to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent over their 2013 usage. If they go over that 20 percent and the threshold, they’ll pay fines.

About 80 percent of residents in multi-family homes are below the threshold and residents of multi-family homes are, on average, more efficient water users than residents in single-family homes. This is in part due to landscaping, which is significantly more common at single-family homes.

Many of Santa Monica’s older buildings are master metered, meaning they only have one water meter for the whole building, rather than a meter for each tenant.

“The landlords pays the water bill and the tenants don’t pay for the water,” Dean Kubani, director of City Hall’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment, “and they have a lot of concern about, ‘Well if I can’t compel my tenants to save water and then I go over, and I end up paying the penalty, and it’s not my fault. I don’t think that’s fair.’ And they want to know if they’ll be able to pass through those charges or part of those charges, to their tenants.”

This question will likely come back to the Rent Control Board for discussion, assuming the water reduction measures pass, Kubani said.

Board Chair Todd Flora told Kubani that he’s concerned about pass-throughs becoming a harassment issue.

“‘Compelling tenants’ is a generous way to put it,” he said, using air-quotes, “because I’m sure many, most landlords would be very kind about it but if you’re missing four payment periods in a row, some of the bad apple landlords are going to start getting frisky and they’re going to start messing with folks.”

If the drought response measures pass, Flora said, the tension will come from apartments where landlords, not tenants, pay for water.

Leaks, according to a presentation by Kubani, make up nearly 14 percent of water usage in Santa Monica homes.

“As important as these efforts are, it really worries me, particularly given this leaks situation,” Flora said. “I don’t want landlords to be allowed to pass through expenses to tenants for a leak claiming it’s not a leak. Which we’ve had some bad apple landlords claim it’s not a leak: ‘My tenants are leaving the water on all day. They’re out to get me.'”

Rent Board Administrator Tracy Condon noted that this is not totally uncharted territory: The board dealt with drought response measures back in the early 1990s.

“At that time the board adopted a pass-through provision so that if there were penalties assessed owners had to provide proof that they had installed all of the water conserving materials that they could such as low-flow toilets, low-flow shower heads,” she said.Council will consider the drought response measures early next year, likely in January.

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