San Antonio Water System cuts service to apartments behind on bills

Most people who rent apartments don’t pay separate fees for rent and utilities. Usually, they’re combined into one monthly payment to the landlord, who then uses that money to pay for the trash, water, and so on.

This is generally a convenience for renters. But if the landlord falls behind on the bills, then tenants may suffer, too.

The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) recently cut off service at four apartment complexes due to unpaid bills, leaving residents high and dry – and more could be on the way.

Liz Teitz, reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, spoke to Texas Standard about the shutoffs. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You recently covered these water shutoffs. How many people were affected by them?

Liz Teitz: About 600 units in total were affected.

Were these folks given any notice or did it just happen?

The San Antonio Water System said it made two attempts to notify residents. Some residents we talked to said they weren’t aware of it until the day before that it might happen.

Did the city offer any bottled water or any services like that in the interim?

Yes. Several city departments were involved in responding to the apartments during the day that there was water disconnected. They brought water bottles out, and the water system said it was also prepared to respond with bottled water if needed – if the shutoffs dragged on for longer.

This seems like a pretty drastic step to take, though – just turning off the water altogether for tenants whose landlord is not up on the bills. What did folks from San Antonio Water have to say about why they made this decision?

SAWS said that it needed to do something public and pretty substantial to get the attention of these landlords.

They said they have been trying for months to work with these owners, and that in general they try really hard to avoid shutoffs, particularly for apartment complexes, because they know that tenants are going to be bearing the brunt of the shut off. That is their landlord’s responsibility.

But they said it’s also not fair for their other customers to underwrite commercial apartment landlords. So they felt it was necessary to take this step. And they’re hoping that doing so publicly will motivate other customers who are behind to catch up and get in line so it doesn’t happen again.

Has the mayor or any of the members of the city council weighed in on this?

So the four apartment complexes that were shut off are in four different council districts. And I reached out to all of those councilors offices.

One of them, Marina Alderete Gavito, was critical of how SAWS handled it. She said that it lacked compassion and penalized tenants for their landlord’s decisions. And she also said that they shouldn’t have all been done on the same day, because that forced city staff to respond to several different locations around the city all at once.

And maybe spread those resources thin, is what you’re saying?

Yes. And I asked the water utility about that, and they said they communicated with city departments beforehand, and at no point did the city say they wouldn’t be able to handle that response. But they said they’ll take it into consideration in the future.

Is it clear how these apartment complexes amassed such big tabs with the water company, when, you know, one presumes they’ve been collecting money to pay for the water bill from tenants?

So there’s some different situations at play here.

Some of these apartments are owned by an affordable housing nonprofit in California that owns several complexes here in San Antonio. The owner there blamed it on the tenants, said they haven’t played their bills. They haven’t paid their rent and blames it on them.

But when I spoke to sources about that, they said, well, these tenants haven’t been evicted. So clearly they’re paying. And it’s on the landlords who are not making those payments.

These complexes were also already on payment plans that had been arranged with SAWS, and they were only shut off once. They failed to meet the deadlines of those payment plans. So it wasn’t that they had just missed a few payments. They had, in some cases, over $100,000 in unpaid bills.

Got it. And more shut offs like this could be forthcoming, yes?

The CEO of the water system has said he’s hopeful to not do it again, but that he considered it successful the way it went, because three of the four complexes did pay up within the same day, and water service was restored within a few hours. So he’s hopeful that it kind of showed those other customers that could be in line for a shut off in the future to take this seriously.

But he did say that, yes, if it comes to it, there are seriously delinquent landlords who it could potentially happen again, too.

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