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'We don't use that much water!' | Is an Arden-Arcade apartment complex price-gouging water bills?

Tenants at Harlow Apartments called ABC10 for help when they were slapped with two $400 water bills, despite having a $35 flat rate written into their leases.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When tenants of the Harlow Apartments in Arden-Arcade reached out to ABC10 about abnormally high water bills, we started asking questions and got results.

With the turn of a faucet, tenant Angy Boss washes her hands before lunch, wondering why her May water bill was more than 11 times the flat rate of $35 that's written into her lease.

"We don't use that much water," Boss said. "I don't have $400 laying around to be put into a utility bill that I wasn't expecting."

That's a third of what she pays for rent now in a quiet two-bedroom, one-bathroom unit that doesn't have its own washer and dryer at the Harlow Apartment complex.

"It makes no sense," Boss said.

She's already received a second $400 water bill. This time, for the months of January through March.

"What if I have no other choice, and I don't want anything bad to go on my record," Boss said.

And she wasn't alone.

"No notice, no communication, then we were trying to contact management, she said 'oh, I don't have nothing to do with it' and no one at corporate was answering their phones," Leotha Leban, another Harlow Apartments tenant, said.

Leban said after living there for seven years, she knows these bills down to the penny.

"It's kind of like a blow to the chest because you know, after the covid and everything, like whose really got money or assets like that?" Leban said.

Nearly 90 tenants in the apartment complex received two of these surprise bills, ranging from $200 to $600 each.

ABC10 asked what changed between the flat rate and now paying $400, Leban said, the ownership. Last November, the complex transitioned from DJA Properties to Trion Living.

Before that transition, some tenants were given a notice from DJA back in July of 2021 of a change in tenancy, saying that the flat fee for utilities would be changed to "actual usage for your building, based on the square footage of your unit," noting that the tenant was responsible for 60 percent of actual usage and the complex owners for 40 percent.  

"It's very frustrating because if they decide to kick us out, where can we go?" Leban said.

It wasn't until May 1st when tenants got the surprise bills, under new management.

"We don't even know where to go or where to get a resolution," Boss said.

That's when ABC10 started asking questions. While Trion Living never got back to ABC10, their new outsourced utility company Conservice did, providing a statement saying:

"After ABC10 brought this to our attention, we thoroughly investigated the bills initially sent to tenants. Unfortunately during the transition to the new billing method (and using new accounts from the utility provider), several errors/omissions were made. The new bills have been calculated and are being distributed to the tenants that are much more in line with expectations. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused the residents and will work with any resident financially impacted by the high bills."

Tenants still want to see more protections put into place so this doesn't happen again.

"There should be some kind of law or state law or something in the regulations to where this can't happen," Leban said.

An attorney for Conservice added the new bills and letters will be handed out by staff this week and for those who already paid these high bills, credits will be issued into their payment portal for use on future rent and other charges. Several tenants confirmed with ABC10 their accounts have already been updated.

If you feel like you might be in a similar situation with your utility company, you can file a public safety report with the California Public Utilities Commission here.

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