Proposal to pass water bills to L.A. renters runs cold at City Hall

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A proposal by Los Angeles landlords to pass water bills onto their tenants is running into both political and practical roadblocks.

The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, which represents local landlords, is lobbying the city to approve the idea, arguing that renters will save more water if they pay the bill themselves. The proposal would only apply to rent-controlled apartment buildings in L.A., and requires city council approval. If passed, tenants would share the cost of their building's main water bill, in exchange for reduced rent. A renter's monthly water bill would be assessed using a formula that landlords insist would be fair. For example, tenants in 3-bedroom units would be pay more than tenants in smaller units.

This week, Mayor Eric Garcetti told KPCC that he would only approve of a plan where a tenant's bill was measured with an individual meter. Councilman Mike Bonin agreed, and said shared bills would not work.

Jim Clarke with the AAGLA said meters would be far too expensive install, and would require major construction.

Nearly all rent-controlled units in L.A. get their water from a single main pipe leading into their building, according to the City of L.A.'s Department of Building and Safety. That water is then shared across all apartments. A single branch might feed into the bathrooms for two different apartments, for example.

To install individual meters, plumbing would have to be rearranged to isolate water flow to each unit - meaning only a single pipe would lead into each apartment. A meter could then be attached to that pipe. 

Doing that would be a huge undertaking.

"It would be an absolute mess," says L.A.'s chief building inspector Luke Zamperini.

He says in most cases, walls would have to be torn open to get access to pipes. Pipes may also be dug up because they're located underground, or tucked away in ceilings because they provide water to a whole floor.  

"It would be just be cost-prohibitive," he says.

In addition to the labor costs involved, the L.A. Department of Water and Power says a meter itself costs about $2,000. 

Clarke says he's hopeful officials will consider the proposal brought by his agency, which calls for shared bills, instead of the costly meters. And if officials will only back a plan that includes individual meters, he said, the city would need to make installing them more affordable.

"They need to talk to their own utility," he says. "It's astronomical to get this done."