Dozens of tenants frustrated after 250% increase for water and sewage

Published: Mar. 23, 2022 at 6:08 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 23, 2022 at 7:56 PM EDT
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WEST ASHLEY, S.C. (WCSC) - The problems began earlier this year for tenants at The Radius of West Ashley apartment complex, a few months after a change in ownership.

“I think often it leads to issues for tenants that are living there when the new owner is coming in and not necessarily familiar with what’s happened in the past,” Robert Darby with Charleston Legal Access said.

Live 5 Investigates spoke to at least a dozen tenants experiencing several issues.

But the most concerning and budget-breaking: an unexplainable increase for utilities, specifically for water and sewer.

Tenants charged 250% increase in water and sewage

One person who didn’t wish to go on camera said their water bill went from a consistent $14 a month, to $69. Overall, between water and sewer, they saw more than $100 from late Fall 2021 to March 2022.

A list of charges provided by another tenant showed a flat rate of $12.32 for water and $44.72 for sewer for both September and October.

In November, it increased to $14.82 for water, $63.89 for sewer.

In December there’s another slight increase and then in January the charges are listed for water: $59.12, sewer: $83.75.

That’s a 250% increase.

For Lindsay Barton, who lives in a two bed, two bath with her boyfriend, she says they’re on the hook for so much more than they bargained for.

Barton, who’s in her first year of law school, saved up and budgeted for their apartment while she attended school.

“All of a sudden we’re paying $200, $300 dollars more at some points,” she explained.

Now her concern is, how will they afford the apartment until the lease is up.

“I’m gonna probably have to pick up a job in the summertime on top of clerking or interning at a law firm. I’m gonna probably have to take up a restaurant job or something just because, you know, I can’t really afford to stay here,” she said.

It’s a similar story for others. Jacob Hasting says he hasn’t used more water than usual, and yet has been charged hundreds more.

“I mean maybe I take a longer shower than usual, but that’s not $200. That’s like leaving the faucet on because I like the sound,” he said.

Change in Ownership

In November of last year, a new company bought the complex.

According to documents filed by the Charleston County Office of Deeds, BF Landings West Ashley, an LLC registered in Delaware, now owns both The Radius and the Ashford Riverview apartments.

According to the South Carolina Secretary of State website, it was created less than two months before the purchases.

Both are managed by Cushman & Wakefield, LLC, according to their websites.

A company spokesman for Cushman & Wakefield declined to comment for this story.

A lease from previous ownership obtained by Live 5 Investigates shows a utilities addendum that lists American Utilities Management (AUM) for monthly water and sewer charges.

However, in December 2021 Conservice began billing for water, sewer and trash instead.

Its website lists it as “the largest utility management provider in the nation management provider in the nation.”

After reaching out multiple times to the company, Live 5 Investigates got some answers Wednesday afternoon.

According to a company spokesperson, the inflated bills stem from an extended billing cycle from Charleston Water System due to the closing and switching of accounts, as opposed to the normal monthly bill cycle.

“Please keep in mind there is a slight delay between the provider cycle and when the bills are issued to the tenants because we need time to receive the bills and calculate charges. We are still investigating the charges and are working with the City and the Property to come to a resolution for the tenants as we understand this has been a hardship for many,” Julianna Kat with Conservice wrote in an email.

People who live at the complex say that they were never informed of switch to a new utility company or a change in how utilities were split.

A lease signed by a renewing tenant reflects that water and sewer are split by square footage and inhabitants in each apartment.

It is unclear how many in the complex still are under the former lease.

Charleston Water Systems did also implement a rate hike at the start of 2022.

Spokesman Mike Saia says customers on average will experience a $0.15 increase. That translates to about $4 to $5 more a month.

Tenant rights in South Carolina

According to the South Carolina Landlord-Tenant Act, it is illegal for a landlord to explicitly raise the rent mid-lease.

But utilities are a gray area.

Robert Darby, a lawyer with Charleston Legal Access, handles many cases that deal with tenant landlord issues in South Carolina.

“My internal understanding is that we’re not the most tenant friendly of states,” he said.

Darby says the prior lease utilities addendum is missing some important details.

“It’s not clear what the agreement is because the boxes that are checked and aren’t necessarily consistent and there’s blanks that aren’t filled out and then there’s reference to an allocation formula and no allocation formula that’s provided . So it’s really unclear what the agreement was,” he said.

It could be argued that there is a breach in material contract he says, but, the most cost-effective solution is to move out.

“They’re probably gonna have to go file something in small claims court to get that money back and for most tenants, it’s probably not going to be worth it if we’re talking about the difference between $40 and $100,” he said.

“Although that’s certainly significant and can add up over the course of months. It might not be worth paying a filing fee and trying to talk to a lawyer and both the cost and the time involved with resolving that issue,” he added.

For tenants like Barton, it’s a disappointing reality.

A difficult choice others have already made in the complex.

“At the end of day…you kind of feel powerless just because you know, I’m just one person,” she said. “I know a lot of people in the apartment complex feel the same.”

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