Roberto Reyes expects to pay more than $400 this year for water and sewer service in the Columbia apartment he shares with his wife and two children.
To Reyes, it feels like a double economic punch. Those costs had been included in his rent until five months ago. And the new bill is 60 percent higher than the $250 a year that experts say a family of four typically pays for water and sewer service in Howard County.
"For that much money, I should have a big house," said Reyes, 44, a teacher who lives in the Dorsey's Forge apartments. "I am being taken advantage of."
Other angry renters and tenants'-rights advocates agree, calling the fast-spreading practice of billing unmetered tenants such as Reyes for water a hidden rent increase at best and an outrageous rip-off at worst.
The new bills are putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of the owners of some of the largest apartment complexes in Howard County with no accountability, residents say, while producing tidy profits for the national billing companies that sold the concept.
The companies that do the billing say it promotes conservation and turns what had been a growing cost for landlords into a new source of revenue.
It's fair, they say, because costs are divided based on the number of people or number of bedrooms in each apartment.
"My company has recovered millions [of dollars] for clients ... and that should continue to grow," said Bill Griffin, vice president and general counsel for Santa Ana, Calif.-based National Water and Power Inc., which bills the 1,350-unit Town and Country Greensview/West in Ellicott City, Howard's largest complex.
Renters point out that because no meters are used, the bills have no direct relationship to the real use of water and sewer service.
A careful person who uses the dishwasher once a week will pay the same amount as a careless one who leaves the water running all day, angry tenants say.
"It's so irritating to hear my upstairs neighbor's water running," said Tara Washington, 35, who lives with her two daughters in Columbia's Hannibal Grove apartments.
Washington, who pays close to $40 each month for her water and sewer service, said she has tried to cut back, limiting dishwashing and turning off the faucet while she brushes her teeth. But the drone of neighbors' water running is beginning to affect her:
"I sit there and I listen, and I think, 'I'm paying for that.'"
The use of unmetered water billing systems - called RUBS in the industry - is well-established in other parts of the country, particularly Western and Southern states such as California and Texas, where water shortages are common.
Almost everywhere RUBS have appeared in recent years, they have sparked protests and, in some cases, led to increased regulation.
The practice has been declared illegal in some areas of Florida. The North Carolina Utilities Commission will soon consider rules that would ban RUBS.
Oregon requires that service fees be described in the rental agreement and penalizes landlords for failing to advise tenants of RUBS billing. Texas requires landlords or companies that administer RUBS to register with the government and forbids them from making a profit from selling water.
New in Maryland
Unmetered billing in Maryland began relatively recently. In Howard, the four apartment complexes known to have converted to the practice have done so over the past year or so. And some apartments in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties use RUBS.
Montgomery officials have heard a chorus of tenant complaints about unmetered billing, and a study committee is drafting regulations for the practice.
No such safeguards exist for tenants in Howard County. RUBS are legal in Maryland, and there is nothing to stop companies from reselling water for a profit, Howard officials say.
One Howard property owner using RUBS acknowledges that the system isn't perfect but says it is the best answer to rising water costs.
"It's not an exact science, but it is legal," said James Dolphin, chief financial officer for Town and Country Management, a Baltimore real estate investment trust that owns and operates Town and Country/Greensview West.
Dolphin said his company hopes to do more to explain the billing to tenants. "We're not particularly interested in having an adversarial relationship with our residents," he said.
An official at Berkshire Realty Holdings LP, a Boston partnership that owns the Seasons, Hannibal Grove and Dorsey's Forge, the other three Howard apartment complexes known to use RUBS, declined to comment.
Howard officials fear that the billing practice could place a heavy burden on hundreds of low-income apartment tenants.
"If it's left unchecked, some unscrupulous landlord could drive the price right through the roof," said Leonard S. Vaughn, executive director of Howard County's housing commission.
Experts say a typical water and sewer bill for a Howard family of four should be about $250 a year, roughly $21 a month.
Forty-one of 58 Howard RUBS tenants who allowed The Sun to examine their recent water bills paid more than $30 in a month. The biggest bill was $52.81, paid by a Hannibal Grove resident who lives with four family members.
Howard political leaders were astounded by the size of the bills.
County Councilmen Guy J. Guzzone and C. Vernon Gray and County Executive James N. Robey have formed an internal task force to examine the issue. Guzzone is especially outraged over the $3 service fees billing companies add.
"People are paying to be billed? That's crazy," he said.
"It looks like there's a real question of fairness and equity," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who represents Howard County in Annapolis. The former county executive recently asked county officials to survey apartment owners to find out how many are using RUBS.
Burden on the poor
The extra cost of water is a big expense for low-income residents such as Phyllis Cole, a disabled 43-year-old who lives in Columbia's Hannibal Grove apartment complex with her 8-year-old daughter, Jameela, and her 83-year-old father, Leroy.
She receives $490 a month in disability aid from the federal government and $119 monthly in food stamps. Her three-bedroom apartment is partly subsidized by Howard County's Section 8 program but she pays her new water bill, which ranges from $32.37 to $38.55 a month, herself.
Cole's water bills - which began arriving last summer - raised her monthly housing costs nearly 10 percent and cut into her budget.
"I could use some extra food," she said, opening her refrigerator door to reveal a shelf full of condiments, three packets of gizzards and juice. "Just went shopping yesterday, and that's all I have left."
Cole's recent water bills were larger than those of Guzzone, who lives in a five-bedroom Colonial-style home in Ellicott City.
Guzzone, who has a wife and three young children, paid $86.35 for his water and sewer service from Aug. 6 to Nov. 8 last year. Over a similar period, from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15 last year, Cole was charged $98.46 for her water, sewer and billing charges.
The strain of finding the extra money is beginning to wear on Cole, who is recovering from a fall and hopes to return soon to her job as an independent caregiver.
"My girl comes first; I'm going to get her what she needs for school, but this ... makes it hard," Cole said.
How it works
The meterless billing is handled at Town and Country/ Greensview West by National Water and Power, based in Santa Ana, Calif. Billing at the Seasons, Hannibal Grove and Dorsey's Forge is managed by a unit of Viterra Energy Services, based in San Diego.
Viterra and National Water and Power officials say their billing works this way:
The landlord collects bills for all the meters in a complex - each building generally has its own meter - calculates the total cost of water and sewer services and pays the county.
Copies of the bills are forwarded to the billing company, which totals the water and sewer costs, subtracts the share the landlord has agreed to pay to cover the costs of water used in common areas and then uses an allocation formula to calculate each apartment's bill. (Town and Country officials say they pick up 49 percent of the total bill. It's not known what share of bills for the Seasons, Hannibal Grove and Dorsey's Forge is paid by Berkshire.)
The billing companies add a $3 monthly service charge to cover their costs and a $10 start-up fee for any new customers, and mail the bills they prepare to tenants.
When the money comes in, they keep the service charge and send the rest to the landlord.
The billing companies say their systems are fair.
"Residents are absolutely not getting ripped off," said Marc Treitler, general counsel for Viterra. "The reason that apartments get a very high bill is the tenants use a heck of a lot of water or the owners don't pay a large common-area cost."
It's impossible for most Howard tenants to determine from the bills how much the landlord is paying or to see a breakdown of how water and sewer costs are calculated. And if someone is wasting water or if there is a leak, there's no mechanism to stop it.
System and its flaws
National Water and Power and Viterra differ in how they divide the water costs. Town and Country bills are based on the square footage of each apartment. At Berkshire-owned properties, the bills are based on the number of residents in the apartment.
Both methods are flawed. Under the square-footage formula, a single person living in a two-bedroom apartment will pay as much for water as a family of four that lives in a unit of the same size.
The per-person system is vulnerable to cheating by residents who list fewer people on the rental agreement than live in the apartment.
The billing companies acknowledge that unmetered billing has its drawbacks.
"Clearly ... meters are more accurate than RUBS," said Griffin, general counsel for National Water and Power.
"Sub-metering is more fair for the tenant; they can directly control their cost," said Viterra's Treitler.
Treitler said there are more complaints with RUBS and "sub-metering is our first choice," but it's up to the apartment owners.
Meters costly to install
Owners say it's not just the roughly $300 expense of a meter that prompts them to estimate bills. New plumbing would have to be installed in many older apartment buildings to make metering feasible because apartments are fed water from more than one pipe.
"It would be cost-prohibitive for us to sub-meter," said Dolphin, chief financial officer for Town and Country Management.
Dolphin said the separate water bills will help to hold rent increases down. "Without this, rent increases would be much higher," he said.
Criticism of unmetered billing is widespread.
"It's an inherently unfair system," said Kate Wilkins, an official with the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Committee, which monitors water billing at nearly 2,500 properties in that state.
"If the property owner is being billed by a meter, then the tenant should be billed by a meter," said Matty Millet, a consumer services department official in Miami-Dade County, Fla.
Some water billing companies won't administer RUBS, saying it is too much trouble.
"We spent a long time looking into the mirror on this one ... . but we don't principally believe in the practice," said Brian Brittsan, president of Wellspring International, which does only sub- metering.
The bills infuriate many residents, but most say they have little choice but to put up with the practice because it is difficult to find apartments in Howard County.
"It's troubling because they raise my rent every year, but what recourse do I have?" asked Marijane Thompson, who lives in Town and Country and pays about $13 a month for water and sewer service in her two-bedroom apartment.
The bills have pushed some residents to action.
Paul Short paid nearly $30 a month for his water and sewer service for about six months while living at a townhouse in Hannibal Grove with his wife and young son.
Short, a postdoctoral fellow with a degree in clinical psychology, said he never received a satisfactory reply to his repeated requests for explanations of the water billing.
In January, he moved into an Ellicott City home a few months earlier than planned.
"I just wasn't comfortable with the charges," he said. "It seems like the system was open to a lot of abuse."
Reyes agreed. "I should move into a house," he said. "At least there I would only pay for my own water."
Sun staff writer Megan Watzin and staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.