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Water challenges face NC apartment dwellers and mobile home park residents

Mobile Home Park

Mobile homes make up about 14% of all occupied homes in NC, and residents tend to be in lower income brackets.


If you live in the Triangle area, you may have seen the news that this week, residents of a Carrboro apartment complex organized a protest because of high water bills! This highlights an often untalked-about injustice affecting many neighborhoods across the state:

In North Carolina, the many people who live in apartment complexes and mobile home parks can fall victim to high water bills charged by landlords or even corporate water providers. Fourteen percent of occupied homes in NC are mobile homes, and more than 870,000 North Carolinians (almost 10% of the state’s population) live in apartments. Residents of both housing types tend to fall into lower income brackets, so they may be particularly vulnerable to high utility bills.

In these “multifamily developments,” the cost of water has normally been included as part of rent, but since a state law changed in 2004, landlords that purchase water from a nearby water supplier (such as a municipal system) have been shifting to sub-meter each household and charge residents a separate water bill.

Property owners simply have to fill out a short application to the NC Utilities Commission for a “Certificate of Authority” to sub-meter, allowing them to make up costs of providing water and charge an extra administrative fee set by the Commission. In some cases, property owners go a step further and apply for a franchise agreement to operate as a Water Utility. The application is longer, but allows them to make a profit in addition to recovering costs. In some mobile home parks, private for-profit water utilities, such as Aqua North Carolina, handle the resale of water under a franchise agreement.

If sub-metering in multifamily developments is done improperly it creates several opportunities for landlords to take advantage of tenants:

  • When landlords change from in-rent water costs to sub-metered water costs, they may not reduce the rent to compensate for the cost of water which was supposedly included in the rent before. According to an issue brief from the nonprofit environmental law and policy organization Western Resource Advocates, since this is in the best financial interest of property owners, it is “likely the prevalent practice” when switching to sub-metering, meaning that residents are essentially paying twice for water.
  • Residents may be charged for water they didn’t use if the infrastructure is leaky. EPA recommends a water audit and leak repairs before initiating sub-metering, but this is rarely done, especially as landlords have an incentive NOT to make costly repairs. In NC, there is also some lack of clarity in landlord-tenant law about the responsibility of rental property owners to maintain lines. Overcharging due to leaks can be disastrous for low-income residents: According to a former organizer with the Wake County Affordable Housing Coalition, water bills of $100 or $200 a month are not unusual in old mobile home parks, even though many residents have no washing machines, dishwashers, or lawns to water.
  • In many cases third-party billing or meter-reading companies create another level of failed accountability. The involvement of a third-party, Florida based company in meter reading added to confusion for residents at a Carrboro, NC apartment complex in late 2014 when rates apparently went up without warning. In February 2015, residents organized a protest because of continued high bills!

Low-income mobile home park residents on sub-metered systems within municipal boundaries are frequently charged more than households hooked up to the municipal water utility; the tenants end up covering the expenses of billing and management of what is in effect a small water system that a larger, municipal system could cover at a much lower cost.

Public water systems should make a conscious effort to provide service directly to residents of multifamily developments. The practice of sub-metering puts too many low-income water customers at risk, when that service should be fair and affordable. Let’s cut out the “middle man” and ensure water justice for all!

For more information, read our 2011 report, “Privatizing NC’s Water, Undermining Justice?

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