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Who Pays for Water?

Produced by Annette Duke, Staff Attorney & Director of Housing Publications, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Created March 2005

When can a tenant be billed directly for water?

If you are a tenant, a landlord can bill you directly for water only if the following requirements are met:

  1. Submeters Are Installed The landlord has certified to the local board of health that a licensed plumber installed a submeter that measures and bills for water going only to your unit and checked that the submeter is accurate;1
  2. Low-Flow Water Fixtures Are Installed The landlord has installed low-flow, water-conserving faucets, showerheads, and toilets in your unit and the low-flow toilets were installed by a licensed plumber;2
  3. There Is a Written Rental Agreement You have signed a written rental agreement that clearly states that you are responsible for a separate water bill and provides in plain language the billing arrangements for payment of water; and
  4. Your Tenancy Started After March 16, 2005 You moved into your apartment on or after March 16, 2005 (when the new water law went into effect).3 You cannot be billed for water separately if your tenancy began before March 16, 2005.
  5. Previous Tenant Was Not Forced Out If the previous tenant—who was not required to pay for water—left involuntarily, a landlord cannot bill the new tenant for water. The law seeks to prevent landlords from forcing existing tenants out in order to bring in new tenants who would be required to pay for water. (This is not easy to find out.)
  6. Landlord Files Certification Landlords billing separately for water must file a certificate with the local board of health or inspectional services department that certifies they have done all of the above. See What certificate must a landlord file before billing a tenant for water?

If the landlord has failed to meet any one of the above requirements, he or she cannot bill you directly for water.

When can’t a tenant be billed directly for water?

If a landlord has failed to meet any of the requirements in When can a tenant be billed directly for water?, he or she cannot bill your directly for water,

In addition, landlords cannot bill existing tenants directly for water. If the apartment you are currently in is the same one that you were in before March 16, 2005 (when the new submetering law went into effect), you are protected by the law. You are an existing or current tenant and cannot be billed directly for water.

Although a landlord may not bill you directly for water because you are the current tenant, he or she may install a water submeter during your tenancy so the next tenant can be billed directly.4

Do public housing tenants have to pay for water?

Under the new Massachusetts water law, public housing authorities cannot bill state public housing tenants for water.5 The law also protects all federal public housing tenants who resided in their apartment before March 16, 2005, when the new water law went into effect. Federal regulations provide additional protections for federal public housing tenants.6

If you have a Section 8 voucher or you live in housing that is privately owned and subsidized by the government, the law protects you only if you are a current tenant. In other words, if you are now living in the same place where you were living before March 16, 2005, you cannot be charged for water. If, however, your tenancy started on or after March 16, 2005, a landlord can charge you for water, but only if he or she has met all other requirements under the law. See When can a tenant be billed directly for water?.

Can a landlord shut off a tenant’s water?

The new law prohibits landlords from shutting off your water or refusing you water service even if you are late in paying the water bill or have not paid your water bill.7 This is in recognition of state policy that water service is essential to the health of the occupants.8

Are sewer charges included in water charges?

The new law allows landlords to bill for sewer services only if the sewer charges are calculated from the submeter that measures the tenant’s water use. In most cities and towns in Massachusetts, sewer services are determined based on the amount of water used, so in these cities and towns, the water and sewer charges are billed together. However, if the city or town does not calculate sewer charges based on the amount of water used, tenants cannot be billed for sewer charges.

Endnotes

1 Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 186, § 22(c). The law adds section 22 to Chapter 186 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

2    M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(c) and (e).

3 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(d).

4 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(d).

5 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(s).

6 While federal regulations allow for a housing authority to directly bill a federal public housing tenant for water (24 C.F.R. 966.4 and 990.102, definition of "utilities"), there are many requirements that make it difficult for this to happen. A housing authority must install meters that measure actual usage (24 C.F.R. 965.401), provide a tenant with a water utility allowance (24 C.F.R. 965.405), and go through a very involved lease negotiation process to include this new charge (24. C.F.R. 965.405 and 966).

7 M.G.L. Chapter 186, § 22(l).

8 Department of Public Health Advisory Ruling on the Responsibility of Property Owners to Pay for Water and Sewer Charges Under the State Sanitary Code, July 3, 1990, page 2.

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