Tenants Stripped of Right to Sue Landlords in Certain Water Bill Disputes

“The utility commission has exclusive jurisdiction for violations under this subchapter,” and with those 11 words, the 85th Regular Texas Legislature stripped tenants of their right to bring a lawsuit against their landlords for any violation of the Water Code provisions related to charges for submetered and nonsubmetered master metered water and wastewater services.

SB 873, authored by Senator Brandon Creighton, establishes that the Public Utility Commission has “exclusive jurisdiction” (legal speak for “no one else can touch this issue but the PUC”) over any dispute between a landlord and a tenant regarding utility billing for submetered or nonsubmetered master metered water and wastewater services.

Photo by Guillermo Garza

Photo by Guillermo Garza

Prior to the passage of SB 873, a tenant could bring a lawsuit against their landlord in a court of law to resolve a water or waste water bill dispute. With the passage of SB 873, a tenant must now le a complaint with the PUC in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Be aware that the PUC explicitly requests that you rst attempt to resolve the dispute with your landlord.

This can quickly get confusing so a few quick definitions are in order:

Public Utility Commission (PUC): Among other things, the PUC “regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities.”

Submetered utilities: This is when the tenant lives in an apartment, house or other structure and their specific dwelling (or unit) has its own utility meter (located on the outside of the building). That meter measures the water usage for only a single unit or house.

Nonsubmetered master metered (AKA “allocated” utility service): A building that has one utility meter that reads the utility usage for multiple units in the building is said to “allocate” the water usage. The “master meter” measures the water usage for the entire building. A landlord uses a formula to calculate the water bill expenses among the tenants living in the building. (For info on the formula, see ATC’s online fact sheet titled “Utilities”)

Some of your billing rights...

Billing: You always have a right to receive a bill.

Who is the Biller? The water bill must state the name of the company issuing the bill and the name or title, address, and telephone number of the company or person to be contacted in case of a bill- ing dispute; and the name, address, and telephone number of the party to whom payment is to be made.

Submetered or Allocated: The water bill must clearly state if that the water utility service is submetered or allocated. Allocated bills must be issued as promptly as possible after the owner receives the retail public utility bill. This should never happen but if you don’t get a bill for several months, it’s important that you notify your landlord in writing ASAP.

Multi-item bill: If your utilities are on a multi-item bill, charges for submetered or allocated water service must be separate and distinct from any other charges on the bill.

Submetered Utility Service Bill: If you have submetered water service, the bill must re ect the total number of gallons, liters, or cubic feet used and the cost per gallon, liter, or cubic foot for each service provided. If you are in a mobile home, the bill must show the total amount due for a service charged by an owner of a mobile home community.

Due date: The water bill due date may not be less than 16 days after it is mailed or hand delivered to the tenant. If the due date falls on a federal holiday or weekend then the bill is due on the following work day.

Using your rent payment to pay your water bill: If your water bill is not issued by a third party, the landlord must apply your rent payment first to rent owed and then to any utilities owed. If the landlord uses a third-party biller to issue the water bill, then your landlord is legally allowed to apply a portion or all of your rent payment to any outstanding utility bill. This is extremely important to know because you can find yourself late on rent if (1) your landlord or apartment complex uses a third-party biller and (2) you have an outstanding water bill that you may have forgotten about. In this scenario, your landlord may use your rent payment to pay o an old water bill thus making you delinquent on rent.

Disputes: If you are unable to resolve the matter with your landlord, you may le an informal complaint with the PUC by calling: 1-888-782-8477, by emailing: customer@puc.texas.gov or by going online to: www.puc.texas.gov and clicking on “Consumer.”

SB 873 took effect September 1, 2017.

Confused or have questions? It’s okay, this is a lot of information to digest. We are here to help. Just call ATC at 512-474-1961. The line is open Mon-Thur. 9 am – 12 pm and 1 pm - 4 pm; Fri. 9 am – 12 pm.