Are Water Bills Leaving Renters Out to Dry?

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Scholar proposes ways to combat inequities in water access through affordability programs.

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The average American’s water bill has risen by up to 10 percent each year since 2008. And although water is a fundamental human need, not everyone can afford it.

Martha F. Davis of Northeastern University School of Law argues that in the absence of federal rules requiring water billing based on individual unit use, water affordability programs exclude renters who are most in need of assistance. To combat these inequities, Davis suggests that local policymakers implement programs that support residents in multi-family dwellings. She points out that these residents are disproportionately low-income renters and renters of color.

To aid consumers in the face of rising water costs, many local governments offer water bill payment assistance programs, called customer assistance plans or affordability plans. These programs often include discounts or tiered rates for low-income households and other qualifying groups, such as households with seniors, veterans, or individuals with disabilities.

Davis explains that these programs base eligibility on information about residents’ individual water use. Homeowners and renters in single-family dwellings typically have this information because of their direct relationship with their water utility company, Davis observes. That is, they set up their own utility accounts and pay based on their individual household water use.

By contrast, most renters in multi-family dwellings pay water bills through a landlord, who interacts directly with the water utility company.

Water utility companies refer to tenants who pay bills through their landlords as “hard-to-reach” consumers because they cannot interface with these tenants directly. In dwellings without individual unit metering, landlords often base what tenants owe on mere estimates of water usage, Davis explains. As a result, how much renters really owe—and whether they may need financial assistance—is often unclear, Davis warns.

Davis asserts that this indirect system of payment persists in part because installing individual water meters is expensive, costing property owners up to thousands of dollars per unit.

Furthermore, Davis points out that utility companies may prefer the administrative ease of billing landlords directly, compared to opening and closing accounts as tenants move in and out.

Complicating the matter more, consumer advocates have historically argued against separate water metering for low-income tenants, Davis remarks. These critics have contended that adding another separate utility could make tenants more likely to miss payments.

The federal government has taken steps to regulate individual metering of utilities other than water. For example, through the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978, the federal government directed that all new apartments must be individually metered for electricity. But in part because water was historically inexpensive compared to other utilities and did not pose a significant financial burden to tenants, there was no pressure at the time to establish similar requirements for water metering, Davis explains.

Most state and local regulators also have not passed laws requiring individual unit water metering. Davis explains that, instead, localities often require the installation of only one water meter per building and leave it to the discretion of multi-dwelling property owners to install submeters that measure how much individual tenants owe.

Although Davis concedes that a renter’s water bill may seem small when compared to the overall cost of rent, for low-income renters, the cost of water adds up.

In the face of inaction on the part of policymakers to mandate individual water metering, Davis suggests that local governments implement programs offering direct support to renters in multi-family dwellings.

Davis points to the actions of Washington, D.C. policymakers as an example of this kind of action.

In Washington, policymakers used federal COVID-19 funds to implement a temporary water assistance program for low-income residents in buildings with more than four units. Through the program, the government administers a credit to buildings’ landlords under the requirement that 90 percent of the credit be used to refund tenants for their estimated water bill.

The ideal policies, however, are those that provide support to tenants directly, curing their “hard-to-reach” status, Davis emphasizes.

Davis lauds, for example, a program implemented in Portland, Oregon that gave cash to low-income residents facing eviction in an amount reflecting the portion of their rent attributed to water bills. Furthermore, she explains that policymakers in Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington operate programs that offset low-income renters’ water bills by applying a pre-determined credit toward their energy utility bills.

Although Davis ultimately argues that the best solution is more extensive metering of water use in multi-family dwellings, she emphasizes that as water becomes more unaffordable, localities must work to expand water affordability programs for those who are in urgent need of support.

Davis stresses that these residents should not—and cannot—wait for access to water.