Under a flood of criticism, the Department of Water and Power on Wednesday turned the tap back on at an apartment complex whose residents had been without water for seven days because of a landlord's failure to pay a water bill.
The long dry spell at 1325 Ingraham St. focused a flurry of condemnation on a DWP policy that allows water or electricity to apartment buildings with "master meters" to be cut off when a landlord fails or refuses to pay.
The department, faced with $9 million worth of uncollected utility bills each year, relies on such cutoffs--and ensuing tenant pressure on landlords--to coerce payment.
"It's the only club we have," said Rick Caruso, president of the city Board of Water and Power Commissioners.
However, several City Council members and the chief of an interagency task force on slum housing said Wednesday that the DWP policy unfairly penalizes tenants, who normally pay for their water through their rent and should not have to suffer for their landlord's delinquency.
In the case in question, the DWP on Nov. 13 shut off water service to the 24-unit building on Ingraham Street, a block off Wilshire Boulevard near downtown. Until service was restored at 10:50 a.m. Wednesday, tenants were forced to carry water in plastic buckets from a nearby faucet or from hoses hooked up to an adjacent building.
The case was made more complex by the fact that the DWP imposed the cutoff not because a bill was due on the Ingraham building, but on another building.
The DWP said Al Lemerande still owed $15,000 for service on another Los Angeles property he once owned. The DWP has a policy that lets it cut off service at all buildings owned by a delinquent customer, and since DWP records showed that the Ingraham building was the only one that Lemerande was still responsible for, a shut-off notice was issued.
Lemerande believes the DWP was wrong. He contested its claim of $15,000 and said he no longer owned the Ingraham building, having sold it two months ago to Neil Blueler, a developer who is being prosecuted by the city attorney's office for dozens of building code violations on three other apartment buildings.
A DWP spokesman, noting that the utility gives substantial warning before it cuts off service, posted the first warning of a water shut-off at the building on Oct. 1. However, tenants said pleas to Blueler's management company did no good, and the shut-off finally came.
The water finally was turned back on Wednesday after the DWP was told that tenants were willing to put up the $800 deposit necessary for restoration of service. Later in the day, a representative of Blueler paid the deposit, a DWP spokesman said.
While tenants in the three-story building were enjoying their first showers in a week, members of the City Council were dousing the DWP with anger.
Council members voted unanimously to ask the department not to shut off water or power service to master-metered apartment buildings--those in which the landlord is responsible for the entire building--until the council can review the procedures.
As an independent agency, the DWP is not under council control and its board members--although appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council--can determine policy on their own.
Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who co-authored the proposal, called the DWP move "heartless," adding that "this kind of blackmail--which is what it is, basically holding the tenants hostage until the violator pays up--is pathetic."
Added Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, whose district includes the neighborhood around the Ingraham Street building: "It's about the dumbest thing I've ever seen a big corporate structure commit. Any grade school kid would have more sense. You can't just shut off the water with tenants like babies, children and sick people like that. You can't shut off the water-that's (their) life!"
Pending Rate Boost
Several council members warned that the controversy could affect DWP's pending rate increase and lend impetus to a suggestion that the council take direct control over the department.
Those issues are now before the council's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which had been studying alternatives to curtailing tenants' water and electricity because their landlords have failed to pay DWP bills.
Caruso said he agrees that the shut-off policy needs to be reviewed and said that, in the Ingraham Street case, "I'm not personally happy with the application of it." Deputy City Atty. Stefanie Sautner, who runs the city attorney's housing enforcement unit in addition to heading the Los Angeles Interagency Slum Housing Task Force, said the DWP's practice has long been a sore spot among lawyers who try to protect the rights of poor tenants.
"You take a slumlord who hasn't paid his bill on his Skid Row apartment, but the tenants have paid for their utilities with their rents--they're innocent parties," Sautner said. "The landlord is the guilty party."
Judgment Against DWP