Tenants Rights Group Urges EBMUD to Keep Water Flowing

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 04, 2008

Advocates for tenants’ rights are hopeful that the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) will keep the water running permanently in multi-family rental properties in foreclosure status and adopt a lien system to collect unpaid bills from landlords. 

EBMUD’s Board of Directors voted on March 25 to approve continuing a moratorium on suspending services to tenants in foreclosed properties where the landlord has stopped paying the bill, and asked staff to propose a timeline for a process to take care of delinquent bills. 

“We are going to be testing out a six-step process to make landlords pay delinquent bills for water services in foreclosed properties,” said EBMUD spokesperson Jeff Becerra. “Some of these steps include asking tenants to advise us if the property is foreclosed, contacting the county records office to check if the property is in foreclosure, and in the event of a foreclosure contacting the landlord or the lender in an attempt to get payment. In the meantime the water will still be turned on.” 

Becerra said the agency’s staff would test the process over the next couple of months and report to the board in summer. 

“The board decided not to go forward with the seventh step, the lien system, and asked staff to come back for a timeline for the process,” he said. 

Kim Ota of Just Cause Oakland, a local activist organization, had lobbied the board for a permanent moratorium and adoption of the lien system. 

“We are really glad they have put a moratorium, for the time being, on turning off water, but we still hope they will have a permanent policy in place for keeping the water running,” Ota told the Planet Thursday. “We are disappointed that they did not set up a lien system to keep the water on and collect the bill from the landlord. They are still asking tenants to pay the bill or holding them accountable, whereas these tenants have signed leases with their landlords in which the landlords are responsible for paying the bills.” 

EBMUD had not tracked termination of water services to tenants in foreclosed properties until board member Andy Katz brought it to their attention in December. 

“Just Cause called me last year and told me that EBMUD had turned off the water for one of their members who was renting property that had been foreclosed by Countrywide,” Katz said. “EBMUD’s policy was to turn off water in case of non-payment of bills. In a typical situation tenants don’t have control over water and turning the water off would mean no water for cooking, bathing or flushing the toilet.” 

Katz was able to get the water service running after it had been suspended for a day.  

“When the utilities are taken away, it makes the unit inhabitable,” said Ota. “It’s a way of illegally evicting tenants.” 

Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco have “just cause” eviction laws which allow tenants to live in rental properties that are sold unless the new owner plans to convert its use or move in himself. 

Katz also proposed placing liens on rental properties to collect bills instead of turning off the water. 

“When a lien is recorded on title property it secures the debt owned to the creditor,” he said. “That way we can notify the current property owner that they have to pay the bill. However the board did not go ahead with it. EBMUD still needs to find a permanent system to collect the water bill without disconnecting water services.” 

The lien system is used by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. 

“It’s the best way for utility bills to get paid,” said Brenda Adams, an attorney with Oakland’s Eviction Defense Center who spoke in favor of the lien process at the EBMUD board meeting. “The moratorium should be permanent as well. There are tenants who have done nothing wrong ... low income families with small children and elderly people who are denied access to water. We live in a First World country, this should not be happening to us.” 

Adams said that EBMUD’s service suspensions also affected families in single family homes. 

“The point the board made was that renters in single-family homes were more capable of putting the water bill in their names,” she said. 

“That’s technically correct, assuming that they can afford it. Our clients can’t afford to do that.” 

According to Becerra, 23 multi-family properties, including one in Berkeley, had delinquent water bills in the EBMUD service area which stretches from Crockett to San Leandro. 

Katz said the number of service terminations had doubled from 2006 to 2007. 

“We have restored services to anyone who has come forward to us,” he said. “People can call 1-866-40-EBMUD for help. Our customer service staff is now aware of the problem.”