Ore. woman finds out she's been paying for landlord's electricity

ST. HELENS, Ore. -- It can be painful enough to pay your own electricity bill. But what if you found out you've been paying hundreds of dollars for someone else's bill as well and you didn't even know it?

A St. Helens woman contacted the KATU Problem Solvers to say this has happened to her.

Kathy Broyles said she wondered why the maintenance man at her low-income apartment complex continually asked to come inside her apartment to reset a circuit in her breaker box, and there seemed to be some sort of connection between the electricity inside her apartment and the power outside her building.

"When my lights and things would go off, sometimes I'd be outside to use the pop machine and it wasn't working either," said Broyles.

Her family did a test, and discovered there was a direct connection: the complex soda machine and tool shed were running off of Broyles' meter, and she had been paying for it for years.

"I felt used," said Broyles.

Her family researched the electricity costs for a soda machine of that model and guesses the power for that alone would run between about $250 and $440 per year. They said she has lived in the apartment for five years and four months. They estimate the cost at about $2,000.

"Not fair," said Broyles' son-in-law, Darrin Zilke, while visiting her apartment. "Theft, all the way."

The Problem Solvers asked the property managers, Cascade Management, how this happened. The company said it had taken over managing the complex not long ago, and they thought the previous management had told Broyles about the complex using her electricity.

A renters' rights group, the Community Alliance of Tenants, said landlords are allowed to use their renters' electricity if they inform the renters at the time they sign the lease. Broyles said management did not inform her about the electricity use.

"I just want them to do the right thing," said Broyles.

Zilke said Cascade Management told him that after they learned about the problem, they used a device to test how much electricity the soda machine uses, and offered Broyles about $600 in rent credit.

The family disputed that amount, saying it did not cover the true cost that Broyles paid out.

"She's a vet," said Zilke, adding that his mother-in-law is on a fixed income. "She can't afford it."

In addition, the Community Alliance of Tenants said renters may be able to recover more than the cost of the electricity in some circumstances. CAT said if the landlord does not disclose the electricity use at the time the renter signs the lease, the renters may be able to recover a total of twice the amount of the electricity, or one month's rent, whichever is greater.

Cascade Management said they are currently negotiating with the family.

Broyles would like the complex to fix the problem so low-income people living there in the future don't have to pay like she has.

"I just want them to do the right thing," said Broyles. "Like, if I were a relative of some sort, you know, wouldn't they want this for them?"

The Community Alliance of Tenants gave advice on what renters can do if they are in this kind of situation:

If a tenant believes he/she is paying for electricity for another unit or common area, he/she should ask the landlord in writing if that is the case. According to ORS 90.315, the landlord must tell the tenant if that is the case. If the landlord lies about it, or doesn't respond the tenant may have some recourse or a claim.