Advocates urge city officials to implement water affordability legislation

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Baltimore City’s water affordability law was supposed to go into effect today, scaling water bills to household income.

But last month, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s administration sought to delay the law’s implementation until July 1, 2021, with the Department of Public Works’ acting director Matthew W. Garbark saying the coronavirus and budgetary restraints hindered the agency’s ability to meet the requirements.

Now, a coalition of advocates are pushing city officials to phase in some of the legislation’s provisions.

Rianna Eckel, senior organizer with Food & Water Watch, said during a virtual press conference on Monday that Young’s administration and the Department of Public Works have “dragged their feet” in putting the law into action.

“We are frustrated and disappointed with the department’s inability to implement this crucial bill,” Eckel said. “Baltimoreans need this legislation now more than ever as tens of thousands of our neighbors are struggling with lost jobs and wages due to the coronavirus.”

Food & Water Watch is one of several members of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, which is pushing DPW to implement the water affordability law.

Molly Amster, the Baltimore director for Jews United For Justice, another of the organizations in the coalition, said that although some elements of the law may take time to implement, other parts can and should be enacted now.

The coalition is calling on the city to stop charging late fees for people who are enrolled in payment plans or discount programs for their water bills, and mail a notice to customers 30 days before their payment is due, Amster said.

The city also needs to ensure that all payment plan terms are in writing, provide the name and phone number of a customer service representative whom customers can contact, and continue the hiring process for a customer advocate in the Office of Water Billing, Amster said.

Representatives from the Department of Public Works did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

City Council President Brandon Scott, who joined the coalition members for the virtual press conference, said securing Baltimoreans’ access to affordable water has always been a priority for him, but especially now with the added challenges that the pandemic poses.

“We know that this is something that we have to do and we have to do it responsibly,” he said. “It’s going to take time to implement it that way. But as we continue to battle this public health pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we make sure that people have the relief and access to a better water system as soon as humanly possible.”

The Baltimore City Council in November 2019 unanimously passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which Young introduced when he was council president.

Zafar Shah, a staff attorney with the Public Justice Center, another coalition member, said that his organization has been receiving calls from renters whom DPW has turned away for assistance.

In another instance, Shah said a client was sued for eviction because they couldn’t get their landlord to call DPW and initiate access to the city’s BH20 Assists program, which provides a water billing discount for city residents who are on unemployment.

“We can expect that there’s going to be a lot more people in my client’s shoes,” Shah said.

He added that with more people at home due to the pandemic, renters are using more water than usual and seeing higher water bills than they are able to pay.

That, combined with not being able to afford rent due to loss of income, has created financial hardship for a lot of tenants, Shah said.

“We have to use whatever tools we have with the Water Accountability and Equity Act to help tenants get not only out of the utility hole, but out of the rent hole as well because these are very inter-related,” he said.

The city on Monday extended the deadline to apply for a rent assistance program until July 19.

Scott said he will continue working with DPW to begin the processes outlined in the law and “[get] people in Baltimore the relief they need.”

“While I’m disappointed that we’re still fighting for the implementation after years of debate, years of tough work by the coalition and by the council, I have not given up hope,” he said.

In April, the city announced a 43 percent discount on water and sewer bills for residents who showed proof that they are eligible for unemployment benefits.

But Food & Water Watch said at the time the discount is “a great first step but still falls short” because it doesn’t protect tenants and low-income Baltimoreans who have been financially impacted by COVID-19 but are still employed.

“The existing program requires tenants to have landlords add them to the water account, which has been a significant barrier to assistance for many renting residents in the City,” they said.

Marcus Dieterle

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