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The City of Santa Monica recently reported a drop in municipal water use of 52 percent, but some Santa Monica apartment owners say city policies are making it difficult to motivate renters to save water.

The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) recently released a study stating that more than 86 percent of rental property owners who pay for tenants’ water have seen usage increase or stay the same since Governor Jerry Brown first mandated statewide restrictions in April.

According to AAGLA, they surveyed 100 multifamily apartment complexes in the Los Angeles area, including some in Santa Monica. Of the valid responses, the survey found about 90 percent of buildings are master-metered. Only eight percent of responses have individual meters in units (two percent did not respond). Of the master metered units, only 12.2 percent reduced water usage. The survey said 71 percent had relatively unchanged water usage, while 14.4 percent increased water usage.

“As residents, we’re concerned that the situation is going to seriously hamper the state’s, and the Los Angeles area’s, efforts to combat the drought,” said AAGLA in a statement. “As building owners, we fear that our tenants unwillingness to conserve water will result in fines for property owners. With rent control, we are unable to pass those fines along to tenants in the form of higher rents. For the same reason, we are unable to install submeters, which can be quite expensive in its own right, until a tenant moves out. So there is no way for building owners to make tenants share in the conservation effort or the cost of failing to do so.”

According to staff, the city’s system did not track master or submetered as part of routine business. Staff is now in the process of identifying and confirming meter status and has identified 26 properties with submeters so far.

AAGLA is the largest local apartment association west of the Mississippi, representing over 20,000 owners and managers throughout the Southern California area. William Dawson is a Santa Monica apartment owner and AAGLA member. He said the regional data was relevant to Santa Monica due to the similar nature of the rental market and that AAGLA has hundreds of Santa Monica members.

“The apartment buildings here are primarily master metered,” he said. “We have buildings with owners paying water but tenants having 100 percent control of the water usage and owners can’t effectively encourage or require water conservation.”

At a recent discussion of passthroughs, the Rent Control Board discussed passing a percentage of costs related to water overages to renters and requiring landlords to pay the rest. In April, board members said leaks, less efficient appliances and/or landscaping could contribute to water overages and landlords should pay for those expenses.

Dawson said many efficiency upgrades have already been made, and more owners are making upgrades in pursuit of the required water cuts. He said some percentage of fines could be assigned to landlords but the heavy majority should be paid by tenants. “The Rent Control Board has not approved any passthroughs of those fines yet, but they are looking to do a model of 75 percent to the tenant and 25 percent to the owners,” he said. “I’m not sure I agree with that percentage. We’re looking to 85-90 percent to the tenant. We’ve already put in drought tolerant landscaping, less of the water is being used in the common areas and the lion’s share is used by the tenants. Once tenants understand that they can save themselves money by reducing their water usage, that will affect the change we’re all looking for … to save water.”

Dawson said Santa Monica’s rent control rules actually discourage water saving as the laws expressly prohibit charging renters for water, even if submetering is available. He said local rent control laws do not allow a previously master metered building to charge tenants for individual water use, even if submeters are installed, unless submeters were installed prior to rent control taking effect.

Members of the Rent Control Board have said allowing landlords to factor water rates into rents could be used as a means of tenant harassment and other renters rights groups have disputed the AAGLA report.

Larry Gross, executive director of the tenants’ right organization Coalition for Economic Survival, said the survey was not scientific and questioned the motivation behind the study.

“We see this as another attempt to get additional pass-through rent increases,” he said. “It’s disingenuous on their part.”

Gross said systems favored by landlords for establishing allegedly more equitable water fees are rife with problems and burdened by excessive fees. He said if landlords are concerned about water use, they should foot the bill for the installation of sub-meters, regardless of their ability to recoup that cost and that the cost of water is already factored into rents.

“The fact is, we’ve seen water use in the area go down significantly,” he said. “In city’s with rent control, the majority of residents in those cities are renters so there’s no-way we would be able to obtain those type of results conserving water without renters participating and conserving water.”

AAGLA members say their motivation is to be fair and save water.

“The truth is, a shockingly small number of tenants seem compelled to do their part to help the state throughout this difficult time. State and local leaders should be very concerned that the state’s largest water district will fall short of mandated reductions,” said Jim Clarke, AAGLA executive vice president.

In addition, the calculations for establishing rent increases do not allow for utility costs to be factored in. Dawson said the most recent increase was only .4 percent but, “on a local level where Santa Monica water went up 9 percent, it’s difficult and often unfair, in that it does not translate into the rent increase,” he said.

According to Gross, the numbers behind those percentages actually favor landlords as the half a percent of a several thousand dollar rent is far greater than 9 percent of a $50 water bill.

“The study is smoke and mirrors, it’s a Trojan Horse argument,” said Gross. “The fact is it’s a small cost and (landlords) are getting it in rent.”

Short of tenants paying for cost, Dawson said the City could help.

“What needs to be done is more education from the water department to help owners educate tenants about the things they can do to save water,” he said. “It’s a team effort from everybody, but until we can have the ability to have the tenants affected in their pocket book, they’re not going to pay attention to the drought measures that are needed.”

He praised staff for addressing the issue, but said efforts have fallen short.

“[Staff] are trying, but this is a herculean task, and if everyone fails at this unfortunately the owners are the ones that will get hurt here,” he said.

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...

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