Tenant suspicious of utility bills that withhold usage details

Can landlord hire private company to collect for services?

Question: I live in a large apartment complex where the tenants have to pay water, sewage and garbage. I receive a bill every month from a private company that acts as a billing service for the landlord. Unlike an electric/gas bill where they show you your usage, these bills just have an amount. I have been told by the apartment manager that they take the complete water usage of the complex and divide it by how many tenants live in each apartment. Can they just charge a rate without showing you your usage and does the $45/month they are charging us seem like a fair amount?

Tenants’ attorney Kellman replies:

A landlord can legally pass the cost of water, sewage and garbage on to the tenant but it should be done accurately. You should only be charged for your actual usage, not just an estimate or a guess. Many landlords utilize a landlord-created mythical formula for this called RUBS, which stands for Resident (or Ratio) Utility Billing System. Relying on RUBS is how they claim they are “fairly” allocating the water (sewage and garbage) cost to the tenants. They base their calculations on various factors, including the amount of persons residing there (like your landlord) the number of bedrooms, and even the square footage of the unit. The truth is that none of these systems is accurate or fair, and it impossible to measure the real usage by these methods. Not only is RUBS unfair but it promotes wasteful consumption. There is no incentive to conserve since that will not lower the bill. It actually pays to use more water since you will not have to pay for the extra use. Under RUBS, either the other tenants will pay for it in their bills or it will simply be covered by a fixed flat fee. Tenants can dispute these bills by asking for documentation that the bill accurately reflect water usage, since many rental agreements state the tenant will pay for water actually used. Other agreements rely on the mythical RUBS without any justification. While these charges and systems are not specifically illegal, they are suspicious and worth looking at. Also, if a landlord collects more money than their actual water bill for the complex, they may be acting illegally as an unlicensed water utility reselling water at a profit.

Landlords’ attorney Smith replies:

Needless to say, I do not share Mr. Kellman’s view that the RUBS system is inherently suspicious and motivated by landlord greed. While the RUBS program is not a perfect system, it is, generally speaking, inherently fair and designed to promote water conservation. Most apartment owners have taken it upon themselves to create a system that is fair to both the resident and the landlord. Generally speaking, approximately 20 percent of the apartment building’s water consumption is relegated to common area usage. The balance, or about 80 percent, has been shown to be used by tenants. A further breakdown is based on occupancy of the individual units, and systems are consistently and uniformly implemented. Studies have shown that landlords do not profit by using a RUBS system to pass on water and sewer costs to tenants. Instead, these costs are passed on in a fair and proportionate way. There is no credible evidence that the general spectrum of landlords use the RUBS system to extricate additional profits from tenants. Plumbing in new apartment construction is frequently configured for and set up with individual metering for the tenant’s consumption of water and sewer.

Question: My elderly tenant invited me inside his unit to inspect a leaking toilet. I was shocked and appalled to see filth caked on the floor and fixtures. The kitchen was stacked up with empty containers, some piled on the stove. The piles of debris on the floor were 3 feet high with only a narrow path in the center. This is clearly a health and fire hazard. I live in fear of the city’s manifestly unfair rent control and tenant-landlord laws. It always seems like the landlord is blamed for anything that goes wrong regardless that it may be caused by the tenant. What recourse do I have to get this cleaned up? I live in the building myself together with three other tenants, and we all now live in fear of roaches, rats and fire.

Landlords’ attorney Smith replies:

Even in a rent-control jurisdiction, you have the right to expect your tenants to comply with the lease agreement regarding cleanliness and housekeeping. In this instance, your elderly tenant has failed to comply in a significant way by harboring the filth and debris. This is a health and safety violation. You should not be intimidated by rent control laws, which are typically onerous against landlords. In this case, so long as you document and can prove with credible evidence the violations by the elderly tenant, he could be subject to eviction. Begin by creating written warnings followed with a notice to perform covenant or quit. If he continues, don’t be afraid to initiate the eviction lawsuit. I think you can win this eviction case so long as you present solid evidence of the problems.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords.

E-mail your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com.

Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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