Scott Ball / Rivard Report
CPS Energy, like the San Antonio Water System, receives requests from real estate investors looking for lists of the utility’s customers who have had their service shut off.
However, unlike SAWS, the municipally owned electric and gas utility has been denying those requests. In the denials, CPS Energy cites an exemption under the state’s open records law that applies to public power utilities — but not water utilities — according to information the Rivard Report obtained in an open records request.
That exemption could change in the future, with one San Antonio state representative vowing to introduce legislation that would extend the same provision to water utilities such as SAWS.
Between July 1 and mid-November, CPS Energy received 12 requests for a list of customers whose service had been disconnected. Some of the same requesters also had submitted some of the 84 requests SAWS received between July and mid-September.
To each of those dozen requestors, CPS Energy gave the same response:
“CPS Energy considers customer account information to be confidential and competitive. The Attorney General has agreed with us and issued an opinion … that allows CPS Energy to withhold customer information. As such, we do not release this type of information to anyone except the customer of record … or his or her designee. We are unable to release the information you requested.”
In an email to the Rivard Report, Stacey Cormican, a CPS Energy attorney, said that the utility withholds such information under section 552.133 of the Texas Public Information Act that “makes the ‘customer billing, contract, and usage information’ of public power utilities providing electric or gas services confidential and exempt from disclosure.”
“We take the position that all of our customers prefer to keep their data private unless the customer specifically indicates they want their data released,” said Seamus Nelson, the utility’s corporate communications manager, who maintained CPS Energy is committed to safeguarding its customers’ data.
Asked about the difference between the two utilities, SAWS officials confirmed that section of the public records law only applies to energy utilities, not water utilities.
It’s an “exception that [CPS Energy] often relies upon and it distinguishes how they handle public information requests [compared to] SAWS,” SAWS Vice President and General Counsel Nancy Belinsky said in an email.
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) said he’s been aware for some time of businesses seeking water shutoff lists and intends to introduce legislation to stop it. Bernal said using those lists to generate sales leads “feels predatory.”
“If you live in one of these neighborhoods, which I do, the incessant contacts, the incessant harassment can make people feel like they’re under siege,” Bernal said. “On top of that, I haven’t heard any person who’s engaged with these folks who feels like they’ve walked away with a good deal.”
However, many off-market real estate investors say they shouldn’t be judged unfairly because of how some people in the industry do their work.
“It seemed very one-sided,” said Jonatan Barbera, an investor and co-owner of San Antonio company PRYME Homes, said of a November Rivard Report story that quoted a neighborhood association leader, a local realtor, and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg characterizing his industry as predatory.
“Like every business, you have bad characters,” Barbera continued. “Unfortunately, those are always the ones that get the most spotlight.”
Barbera co-founded PRYME Homes with his business partner, John Barr, who has a real estate license. In an interview on Friday, Barbera and Barr said in previous years when their business was focused on finding and buying distressed properties, they didn’t use water shutoff lists to generate sales leads.
If the water shutoff list is made private, investors simply will find another way to generate leads, they said. They also made the case that their industry is necessary because of the flexibility of working outside the more highly regulated traditional market.
“When you have a distressed home, when you have a home that’s broken down, that has issues, or the homeowner’s distressed, we’re the ones that can close in two days,” Barbera said. “We’re the ones that can help delay a foreclosure. We’re the ones that can help them stay in their home for an extra month so they can get their belongings together. … So we are needed.”
Barbera said that ethical investors don’t badger property owners who aren’t interested in selling. He added that he and Barr have been trying to promote responsible practices in their role as vice-presidents of the Alamo Real Estate Investors Association, a local trade group, and on a podcast they produce together.
“You have to have some form of ethics when you operate in this business,” Barbera said. “You’ve got to think about the long-term of your business – what your brand is going to look like five, 10 years from now – so don’t do shady stuff today.”