Cloudy water: Murky billing soaks Autumn Hill residents
When Natalia and Michael Bost moved into Autumn Hill apartments with their new baby in July, they thought the $827 a month rent for a two-bedroom apartment was a pretty good deal–- until the day they received a $200 water and sewer bill. Now, they're among several tenants at the Commonwealth Drive-area complex who think water is being used as a profit center.
"We were told that water, sewer, and trash payments would be made directly to the leasing office and that they would run $30-40 a month," says Natalia Bost. "In our last apartment, we paid about $25."
At Autumn Hill, the lease reveals that residents may be paying for utilities consumed not only in common areas but also in other residential units, as well as paying an administrative fee that "may or may not accurately reflect actual total utility consumption."
In her work as an attorney for Legal Aid Justice Center, Brenda Castaneda has heard previous complaints about Autumn Hill.
"They have really high water bills," says Castaneda. "Either they have really high usage, or they're making a huge profit, and they're not allowed to make a huge profit."
Or maybe they can. In older complexes that don't have a separate water meter for each unit, management can place a small in-home meter on the hot water pipes and then apply a ratio to estimate total use.
Bost says she sent an email October 20 and a letter November 13 requesting the billing formula, and to date she's claims no response on the numbers that go into the formula. As she struggled to figure out the rate at which her bill was calculated, Bost contacted the third-party biller, AUM, to learn how what ratio was used.
"I was told by the AUM customer service representative that this number was 'private information belonging to your apartment complex,'" relates Bost. "I called our apartment complex to follow up on this number and was told they would 'get back to me.'"
While she never got the ratio, she did find out that her $200 bill included a set-up fee, a partial month, a $10 trash fee, and a $4.50 administrative fee for AUM. Thinking that was a one-time high, the Bosts were stunned to receive an $88 water/sewer bill in August, and by September it had soared to $108.77. (The average customer pays $69.84, according to the Albemarle County Service Authority.)
"I'm concerned about profit sharing and transparency when a public utility is taken into the private sector," says Bost, noting that in Seattle apartments are required to post the water bill for the entire complex.
"We're going to sit down with her and make sure everything is working properly," vows Jim Spahn, communication director for Colonial Properties, the real estate investment trust that owns Autumn Hill and more than 250 other properties in 14 states–- and which insists that the hot water metering is accurate.
John Smith lives in the same building, has a washer and dryer and two kids, and he estimates his water bill is around $60 a month. "If I got a $120 bill, I'd be asking some questions."
Two other interviewed tenants said their water/sewer bills, which include $10 for trash pick up, were around $40. Luke Ohlendorf's, however, is usually around $60, and he says it's been as high as $100 in February.
"They said they averaged the building," says Ohlendorf. "I definitely feel it's too high, but don't know where to go with it legally."
And then there's Jeremy Johnson. He moved in in August, and says he's had a $300 water bill. "It averages $120," he says.
Johnson isn't complaining, though. He's moving.
As for they Bosts, they just got their October water bill. It's $138.