What Utility Billing Rights Do Tenants Have in California?

Utility bills are a fact of life. However, with rising utility rates more and more people every day are unable to pay their bills on time. When a tenant is unable to pay their utility bills, it puts them at risk of service interruptions and penalty fees. In the worst-case scenario, tenants who cannot pay their utility bills may be evicted from their homes, and depending on the terms of the lease, this may be true even if the tenant’s rent is paid and current.

While a tenant must pay for utilities to avoid service interruption, they also have certain rights as a tenant and as utility customer under California law, including:

  • Tenants have the right to know how much they are paying for utility services as well as which company is providing the utility service.

  • Tenants are protected from price-gouging landlords.

  • Tenants have the right to ensure that their utility service remains active if their landlord stops paying the utility bill.

  • Tenants with chronic illness have access to a medical benefits program. For example, under the law, tenants with life support equipment in their home are eligible for a medical benefits program to help minimize the costs of running the machine.

Read on to learn more about your utility billing rights as a tenant.

Right to Know How Much You’re Paying

Ideally, the landlord will provide every apartment or rental unit within a building with its own utility meter, so that each tenant knows exactly how much gas or electricity they are using each month. However, this is not the case for many dwellings — for example, many apartments converted from single-family homes do not have meters for each unit. Although it is legal for landlords to make tenants share a meter, they must tell tenants that they are sharing their meter with the other tenants and negotiate a written agreement stating what percentage of utility bill each tenant will pay. When the landlord does charge the tenant, the statement must include the meter reading at the beginning and end of the month plus the current service rates.

Right to Protection from Nonpayment

When the landlord keeps the utility bill in their name and bills the tenant for electricity and gas, the tenant is not the utility customer. Instead, the tenant is classified as a sub-metered tenant in this scenario. This arrangement generally works well; however, it can become problematic if a landlord stops paying the bill or goes into foreclosure. The California Public Utilities Code allows tenants to circumvent the landlord by applying for their own account to pay the utility bill and keep service turned on. Although the tenant must pay for the utility bill while it is in their name, the utility company cannot make them for any of the landlord's past due balance.

Right to Fair Price for Utility Services

Under California law, landlords are not allowed to profit from providing utility services, meaning that landlords are only allowed to cover their costs when billing for utility services. Thus, a landlord is only allowed to charge the same amount as the utility company when billing for services plus a small fee for creating the tenant's invoice and managing their utility account. When a landlord decided to charge a small fee for managing the tenant's utility account, they cannot charge the tenant more than what it reasonably costs the utility company to handle account services.

Right to Apply for Medical Assistance

Utility companies must offer residents medical baseline assistance, whether the person rents or owns. Under the Public Utilities Act, tenants may request a reduced rate for electric and gas services if they have certain medical conditions that require life support equipment. To qualify for the program, tenants must have a doctor licensed in the State of California confirm that someone in their home depends on life support machine or other life support equipment.

In addition to providing reduced rates to tenants on life support, the program also offers a rate reduction for other qualifying conditions such as paralysis, multiple sclerosis, and scleroderma. For patients with a health condition that does not automatically qualify them for the medical benefits program, they are entitled to a reduced rate if they can provide medical documentation of life-threatening illnesses that require heating and cooling equipment to manage. For example, all California's Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) customers enrolled in the medical baseline program, however, pay a reduced rate for additional 25 therms of gas and 500-kilowatt hours of electricity.