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Santa Monica Rent Board Recommends Landlords Install Water Meters for Each Unit  

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Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

February 10, 2017 -- The City Council could soon consider a measure that would require Santa Monica landlords to assess tenants’ water bills based on actual monthly use.

This would be a major change from the current method of Ratio Utility Billing Systems (RUBS) in which units are charged through a formula that takes the cost of the entire multifamily complex and spreads it among units based on size, number of bathrooms or other criteria.

Also, many landlords don’t charge their tenants for water use at all.

Rent Control Board members recommended on Thursday that the council should require the new method, which Commissioner Todd Flora said was more fair while RUBS is “completely arbitrary and made-up.”

This would likely require the installation of an expensive submeter for each unit, which is one of the reasons several landlords told rent commissioners they objected to the proposal.

“I would love to submeter; I can’t afford to submeter” a landlord who only revealed her last name -- Brown -- told the board.

Several other landlords addressed the board with a range of objections, including J.L. Jacobson from the Action Apartment Association, who said the report on the proposal from rent board staff was “goofy.”

Action Apartment Association filed a lawsuit against the rent board last year to prevent it from outlawing RUBS on the grounds that it does not have the authority to do that.

The lawsuit was dismissed, but can be refiled. So Commissioner Flora says it’s better for the council to take up the matter.

“[RUBS is] honestly not a conservation measure and can be abused as a way of simply extracting money from tenants,” Flora said.

He added, “I know there are many of us in this country, particularly around the 310 area code, that bristle at ‘repeal without replace’ at this time in our nation’s history. That said, the replacement is there for many types of buildings, it’s submetering.”

No other commissioner spoke extensively on the issue. Commissioner Nicole Phillis said she applauded Flora for bringing the issue forward.

Submeters will become a requirement by State law in new multifamily buildings beginning next year.

A report from the rent board staff acknowledged that the installation of submeters would be a cost, but that it would “save money over the long term while at the same time benefiting the environment.”

But the report also states that RUBS “undoubtedly saves the landlord money” while having “no water-conservation effect.”

“As a jurisdiction that has been dedicated to water conservation, Santa Monica should discourage, if not outright forbid, RUBS billing,” the report states.

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