How bad is the water affordability situation in Baltimore? Some at last night’s City Council hearing tried to answer the question with sobering statistics.
Typically, the city shuts off about 3,000 households a year, but in March 2015 about 8,000 were shut off.
Roughly 4,000 of those accounts were not turned back on for a full year.
That information came from Renee Hatcher, Clinical Teaching Faculty Fellow at the University of Baltimore School of Law. And there was this from City Councilman Bill Henry:
According to the United Nations, water bills should be no more than 3% of household income. But in Baltimore, households living on less than $25,000 a year (about a third of all city households) are paying more like 3.6% of their income for sewer and water bills, which average $892 annually.
“Our water rates . . . exceed the global standard,” said Henry, who organized the hearing before the Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee. “That is why we are here.”
Others related sobering stories, including journalist Joan Jacobson, who has been researching the issue for the Abell Foundation for the past six months.
Jacobson told of a 17-year-old Harlem Park girl living in an apartment with her boyfriend who went for five months without water. (The boyfriend’s grandfather had rented the unit and the landlord failed to pay the water bill.)
“They had nowhere else to go, so she and her boyfriend stayed there,” Jacobson testified.
“A neighbor provided them with water and food and since they had no working toilet, they lined kitchen pots with plastic bags to relieve themselves.”
Another case to be included in Jacobson’s upcoming report involved a Park Heights mother of three who was six months pregnant when her water was shut off.
After sending the children to stay elsewhere, she used her food stamps to buy 40-gallon jugs of water.
“She used some for drinking and used the rest to bathe and wash dishes,” Jacobson said. “She used the dirty water to flush her toilet.”
Increasing Collection by Lowering Rates
The affordability discussion comes as as the city rolls out a new water billing system and commences a three-year, nearly 30% rate increase, coming on the heels of water bills that have roughly tripled in Baltimore over the last 15 years.
Between the rate increases and continuing allegations that erroneous billing continues, citizens are reeling from a system that speaker after speaker said is needlessly punishing to the poor.
“Water service is increasingly un-affordable for Baltimore residents. It’s unsustainable,” Hatcher said. “The city’s approach to water billing has disproportionately targeted low-income black residents of the city of Baltimore.”
“Within the next two years, low-income families will see their water bills increase by as much as 55%, and low-income seniors will see their bills as much as double,” according to Mary Grant of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, quoting their study of Baltimore’s water rate structure.
Fixing the problem, several said, makes fiscal sense as well as serving a humanitarian purpose. Hatcher pointed to the success of payment programs already used by some energy companies – similar to the one about to be adopted by the city of Philadelphia that charges a fixed percentage of income for poor customers.
She said studies showed the utilities collected more money when they charged lower rates customers could afford.
“The city can collect actually more revenue if they make their rates affordable for low-income people,” Hatcher said, as she and other speakers advocated a move to such a program for Baltimore.
She noted that Baltimore reports $40 million in lost revenue from overdue accounts. (About $15 million of that total is business and corporate accounts, she noted.)
High water rates also cause the city to lose revenue from property taxes and from the cost of dealing with thousands of vacant houses, as city residents hit hard by high water bills are losing their homes to foreclosure, Hatcher said.
She listed a number of other kinds of “collateral consequences” caused by water shut-offs, including people becoming homeless and losing custody of their children.
“It hurts the physical health and mental health of Baltimore City residents,” Hatcher said.
Apartment Dwellers Need Rights
In addition to asking the city to institute an income-based water shut-off program, speakers had other suggestions for how the city could lessen the burden of high water bills on poor residents.
Setting up separate tenant-controlled accounts would protect city renters from situations where the unpaid water bill is the fault of the owner of their apartment building, said Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center.
He described a client who in May was hit by a $685 erroneous water bill due to a burst water pipe but couldn’t participate in the discussion between the landlord and the Department of Public Works (DPW).
“She was locked out of the conference,” he said. He praised DPW for changes in the system aimed at helping customers, but said they have “glossed over a significant flaw – tenants do not control their own accounts.”
“You don’t see this issue with BGE, Comcast or phone service,” he added.
Daniel Ellis, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services and the co-chair of the Baltimore City Tax Sale Work Group, said another change lawmakers could institute is to remove water bills as a reason to send a property to tax sale.
The purpose, he said, “would be to remove that as a risk, that they lose their homes.”
Empowerment and Mercy
Addressing the DPW representatives present, Henry said he hopes to bring them together with advocates “to reach an agreement on numbers” and discuss whether the affordability program could work.
Judging from last night’s hearing, they may be discussing a number of ideas for how to relieve Baltimore water customers from onerous billing practices and rising rates.
Activist Kim Trueheart, for example, said Baltimore should create a Civilian Oversight Committee to review the actions of the Bureau of Water and Wastewater.
“Right now you don’t require them to be transparent,” Trueheart said, addressing Henry and Councilman Carl Stokes, who chaired the hearing.
“Do something! Help us!”
Jacobson also had some suggestions.
She said Baltimore could follow the lead of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and automatically link people who get Maryland Energy Assistance from the state to city benefits for low income and senior water customers.
“This would mean these people were automatically enrolled rather than having people have fill out applications every year separately,” Jacobson said. “They could reach as many as 20,000 low-income water customers this way.”
A fix was also implied by something Jacobson said she found disturbing with the thousands of residential properties she reviewed for which water was turned off.
“No one from city government followed up on the welfare of the people who lived in these houses,” she said. “No one from Public Works, no one from Baltimore Housing, no one from the Health Department.”