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City Acts on Cutoff of Tenants’ Utilities

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles officials, disturbed by the Department of Water and Power’s shut-off of utilities to “innocent” tenants, moved Wednesday to draft an ordinance aimed at protecting renters when landlords fail to pay their utility bills.

In a hearing before the City Council’s Finance and Revenue Committee, the city attorney’s office was ordered to prepare a law that would allow the city to intercede on behalf of tenants who have received shut-off notices by collecting their rents in an escrow account that would be used to pay utility bills.

Committee Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky, who instructed the attorneys to prepare the ordinance, also suggested exploring the possibility of attaching liens on landlord properties to pressure them to pay overdue electricity, gas and water bills.

Those proposals, which will be reviewed by Yaroslavsky’s committee on the way to the full City Council, are among the recommended alternatives to the DWP’s controversial policy of shutting off water or electricity to all tenants in “master-metered” buildings--buildings in which it is the landlord’s responsibility to pay for utilities--when utility bills are past due.

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DWP officials suspended that policy last week after an outcry arose from the disclosure that the tenants in one Los Angeles apartment building--many of them elderly--went without water for seven days because of an unpaid water bill.

“Anything that puts the onus on the tenant who is innocent in this whole thing is a mistake. It’s unconscionable,” Yaroslavsky said Wednesday.

Rick Caruso, president of the DWP commission, told Yaroslavsky that his board shared the council’s “disgust” over the policy, which he said he was not aware of until the incident last week. Department officials said about 1,800 tenants have been affected over the last year. Caruso said the department must cope with “a lot of games (that) are being played by unscrupulous landlords” hoping to avoid paying the $9 million in delinquent or unpaid utility bills that the DWP faces each year.

The suggestion to set up a trust account for tenants is patterned after an ordinance in Detroit that was passed in 1982. That law provides for the establishment of a utility escrow account administered by the city whenever tenants are notified that their utilities will be shut off.

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Under that system, tenants can voluntarily pay their monthly rents into the account. Those funds are then used to pay all utility bills from the start of the escrow before the balance is given to landlords.


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