The Enigma of a San Diego Apartment’s Water Use

The Enigma of a San Diego Apartment’s Water Use

The landlord’s note taped to my apartment door brought news that made my stomach sink.

My apartment complex’s water consumption is up 17 percent, it said. And no one’s been giving San Diego’s elected officials a harder time about their water consumption than me.

But before the mayor or City Council members start rubbing my nose in my water bill, here’s a huge caveat: It’s not necessarily my water consumption that’s up. I live in an apartment complex with seven other units. I’ve been conserving water. And I don’t even have a water bill for them to rub my nose in.

So maybe my consumption is up. But maybe someone else has a leaky toilet or faucet. Or started taking longer showers. Or decided to wash their car in the alley.

This is the reality for me and hundreds of thousands of San Diego residents in apartments and condos that lack individual water meters. We pay a monthly power bill, so we know how much electricity we use. But we don’t pay a water bill. Just rent. (Or, for those living in condos, it’s a mortgage and HOA fees, but not a city water bill.)

I’ve been motivated to conserve, lest I be called a hypocrite. So I’ve put a bucket under my shower when the water warms up and use that to irrigate my few plants. And I’ve only washed full loads of dishes.

But in a region with tight water supplies, whose residents are being exhorted to use less, apartment dwellers like me don’t have a direct financial incentive to cut consumption. Without a water bill, we don’t know how much we use each month. Only the landlord, who gets the bill, knows that.

We make up a huge constituency. Nearly half of the city’s residents live in apartments and condos.

It’s into that vacuum that San Diego’s City Council is preparing to step. Councilwoman Marti Emerald has pushed a new law forward that would require almost every new apartment built in the city to include individual sub-meters. (Affordable housing apartments would be exempt.)

Instead of having the landlord pay the water bill and incorporating the expense in rent calculations, residents in those units would get a monthly or bi-monthly bill for their individual unit’s use from their landlord. It would go up or down depending on their consumption. The goal is to give apartment and condo dwellers a financial stake in their water consumption — and an incentive to use less.

The council is scheduled to vote on the proposal March 9. If approved, it would go into effect by summer. Emerald said it will make San Diego the state’s largest city with the requirement.

The law wouldn’t provide relief for my complex: It doesn’t apply to existing apartment buildings, unless they’re ripping out and re-installing a majority of their water pipes. (High rises would be exempt from that.)

But it would prevent situations like mine from occurring in new complexes. It would apply to the more than 80,000 new apartments and condos expected to be built in San Diego between now and 2030, according to projections from the San Diego Association of Governments.

“Think of all the savings we could get if people actually paid for the water they use,” Emerald said, noting that studies have pinned conservation gains from installing individual meters at between 15 percent and 39 percent per household.

The proposal was endorsed by the city’s Planning Commission in January and has the support of one key group: The San Diego County Apartment Association. Alan Pentico, a spokesman, said the association supported the plan because it doesn’t require existing apartments to be retrofitted. That’s expensive, Pentico said, and the exact cost is hard to estimate because it depends on each complex’s existing plumbing and its age.

“You just don’t know until you tear all the walls out,” he said, “which is an expensive endeavor to do.”

Emerald said she initially wanted existing apartments to be retrofitted as part of the new law. But that may have increased rents across the city, she said, and would’ve doomed any chance for getting a new law passed.

“If we wanted an ordinance to get approved, this is the way to do it,” she said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to indicate when high-rises would be exempt — when their piping is being replaced.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis.

 

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