This article was posted on Monday, Jun 01, 2015

As we all know, Governor Brown (no pun intended) imposed mandatory water restrictions for the first time on residents, businesses and farms, ordering cities and towns in our drought-ravaged state to reduce usage by 25%. 

The 25% cut in usage amounts to roughly 1.5 million acre-feet of water (an acre foot is equal to about 325,000 gallons) over the next nine months.

“This historic drought demands unprecedented action”, said Brown. 

The reduction in water usage does not apply to the agriculture industry, except for the requirement that it report more information on its groundwater use. Agriculture uses about 80% of California’s developed water supply.

So what does this new restriction have to do with being a landlord?   I put this question, and more, to eviction attorney Dennis Block, on our weekly radio show “Landlord-Tenant Radio” (Every Monday at 1:00 pm on KTYM 1460AM) – “If we are being asked to cut our water usage, how can landlords enforce a reduction of usage by their tenants?” 

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Block: “This really is a problem for landlords. In most multi-unit residential apartment buildings and commercial buildings, the tenants are not responsible for the payment of their water. There is usually only one water meter. Quite frankly, the tenants don’t care and will continually waste water. This burden then falls on the landlord. The state and local municipalities have not yet addressed this issue.  But unless they do, this situation will result in major problems for landlords. Most landlords I know use every conservation trick they can , but still cannot stop tenants from wasting water. I would urge all landlords to retrofit their toilets, faucets, garden hoses, and shower heads with water saving fixtures.

Zac:  Please talk about cost-effective options for the landlord, such as to meter each unit individually or to charge back the cost of water to the tenants.

Block:  If it’s a non rent-controlled area, you can change the terms of each tenancy. The new terms would allow the landlord to charge back a portion of the full water bill to each tenant. For example, if you have a five unit building and the monthly water bill is $100.00, each tenant would pay $20.00 month for water, in addition to their rent. 

You can also do this in a rent controlled area, but only for new tenants. You cannot change the terms of a tenancy for existing tenants.  So if we have that same five unit building in a rent controlled area, and we have two vacancies, the landlord may require the two new tenants to pay a portion of the water bill.  Presumably, when the remaining three tenants vacate, the new incoming tenants would also be required to pay for their corresponding share of the water. 

Zac:  Your scenario means that a landlord of  a rent controlled building could have some tenants that pay for water and some that do not.  If I were one of those tenants that pay for water, I’d cry foul.  

Block: I’m not disagreeing with you. Zac… but the landlord is a businessman and he must make decisions that could be unpopular with his tenants.  

Zac: Will such a decision stand up in court?

Block: Of course it will.   

Closing Thoughts

A landlord can also agree to pay for the entire water bill and charge the tenants for any monies over and above the average monthly bill. For example, if the average monthly water bill is $100.00, and the new bill comes in at $200.00, the landlord (non rent control) may charge back each tenant (once proper notice has been served)  a proportionate share of that additional amount.  If the building is under rent control, each new tenant can be charged an equal share of the additional costs for water.  As the existing tenants vacate, any new tenants would share, proportionately, in the cost of excessive water use. 

Landlords may also check with their local municipalities to learn about rebates offered to replace their existing landscape with drought friendly landscaping.   

Zachary Lawrence JD is the owner of Parkside Property Management and Affordable Landlord Consulting. He is also the co-host and producer of “Landlord-Tenant Radio”

(KTYM 1460am Monday’s @1pm) with Attorney Dennis P. Block.  For management or consultation services, Zachary Lawrence can be reached at (310) 636- 1200 or [email protected]