What happens if a tenant cannot afford the water bill?
Currently, there is no statewide program that provides water assistance to low-income renters or homeowners. However, some cities and towns, including Boston and Cambridge, do provide assistance in paying water bills to elderly and disabled homeowners. All cities and towns should be encouraged to offer discounts to tenants paying for their own water and sewer charges. Plumbing Problems
What should a tenant do if there is a water leak?
Landlords are required by law to keep the entire water system for a rental unit in good working order.28 If there is a water leak in any faucet, showerhead, or toilet, or any pipes or parts of the plumbing system are not fully functioning, you must first request that your landlord repair the problem. It is best to make this request in writing so you have proof that you made it. A short handwritten note, which has the date on it, is fine. Before you give the note to the landlord, make a copy of it for your records so you have proof that you made this request.
If a landlord does not respond to your request and repair the leak in a timely manner, you have a right to withhold your rent or your water bill or a portion of the rent or water bill until the repair is made.29 The State Sanitary Code requires that defects with the plumbing system be repaired within 5 days (or sooner if the violation creates an immediate hazard).30
You also have the right to make the repair and deduct the cost from your rent.31 To do this, however, you need to follow all of the requirements of the repair and deduct law; you cannot simply make the repair and deduct it from your rent. For more information about the repair and deduct law, see Options if Your Landlord Refuses to Make Repairs, Repair and Deduct.
If there is a leak, the law also requires a landlord to determine as accurately as possible how much water leaked out of your system. To do this, the landlord must consult with a licensed plumber and review billing records. The landlord is then required to reduce your water bill or give you a refund for the overcharge from the date that you gave the landlord notice about the leak.32 This is why it is very important to send your landlord a short written notice with a date on it (and keep a copy for your records) so you have proof of this date.
What can a tenant do if the submeter is not accurate?
The law requires that submeters meet certain standards of accuracy.33 If you feel that your submeter is not accurately measuring the water usage for your unit, you can have your submeter tested. The person testing your submeter must have no relationship, financial or otherwise, with the landlord. The person testing the submeter is required to determine the amount of water that was improperly measured by the submeter in the current billing period and any prior billing periods.
If the submeter is measuring more water than is being used by your unit, the landlord must install a new submeter and must also pay for the cost of the test. The landlord must then calculate the amount you have been overcharged and either reduce your current bill or give you a refund.
If the submeter is found to be accurate, you must pay for the cost of testing.
If you do not, the landlord may add this cost to your next water bill.34
Under the Attorney General’s landlord-tenant regulations, any violation by the landlord of the water submetering law may be a violation of the Consumer Protection Laws.35
28 State Sanitary Code, 105 C.M.R. 410.351. See also 105 C.M.R. 410.180.
29 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(m).
31 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(m).
32 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(o).
33 The law requires that submeters meet standards of accuracy and testing as set by the American Water Works Association or similar accredited association. M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(b). The landlord must verify the accuracy of the submeters by determining that the amount of water measured by all submeters in a building does not exceed the amount of water measured by the primary meter, and the landlord must also verify that the submeter is functioning properly at the beginning of each tenancy. M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(g).
34 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(n).
35 See 940 C.M.R. § 3.16(3), § 3.17(1)(c), and § 3.17(1)(d).