If you rent an apartment in Massachusetts, you are about to be screwed — thanks to a stealth, one-sentence piece of legislation. The bill was engrossed in the House on Monday, which means it was adopted without debate or a vote. It now heads to the state Senate.
If the bill goes through, landlords will use computerized energy-monitoring systems to determine what percentage of heat or air-conditioning resources an apartment uses. Landlords will then bill tenants accordingly. Passage of the bill may result in new energy fees based on undisclosed formulas, which the landlords would not need to explain or justify.
Though the bill was virtually ignored by most interest groups, one entity extensively lobbied in favor of it. That company, San Diego–based Ista North America, sells — would you believe it? — computerized energy-monitoring systems. According to state records, Ista paid local lobbying powerhouse Suffolk Group $42,000 to lobby for the bill last year. (This year’s lobbying figures are not yet available.)
In the house, the bill was sponsored and spearheaded by Democrat Thomas A. Golden Jr. of Lowell, who earns more than $100,000 a year selling property with United Estates Realty, in Lowell, and owns rental property of his own. Golden got more than half of his campaign contributions from political-action committees and lobbyists last year — including three Suffolk Group lobbyists — and more from individual realtors and property owners. Multiple calls to Golden’s office were not returned.
State Senator Steven C. Panagiotakis, also of Lowell, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. He owns two rental properties in Dracut.
In theory, properly allocated utility costs could prompt frugality and save resources. With that in mind, the state passed a lengthy, complex law two years ago allowing landlords to bill tenants for water usage.
Unlike that law, however, the proposed energy bill does not provide assurances to tenants or protect against eviction if one fails to pay the new fee. As a result, groups like MassPIRG and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute have opposed it. “It is ill-motivated, poorly conceived, and poorly written,” says Charlie Harak, of the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
The bill would not require landlords to explain how “cost allocation” is determined. By time? Temperature? Coin toss? According to the company’s Web site, Ista’s products use a Resident Utility Billing Service (RUBS) formula, “which bases consumption on variables like square footage or number of occupants.”
And most important of all, the bill does not establish state oversight or regulation of the energy-monitoring systems. As a result, tenants would have no way of discovering whether they’re being overcharged by landlords, and no recourse if that turns out to be the case.