Research has shown Baltimore residents are struggling to afford a nine-year, 127 percent (and counting) increase in water bill rates, with one 2017 report by an economist predicting more than half the city would have unaffordable water bills by this year, if we’re going by a generally accepted standard for affordability.
But a new study, released today by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund, indicates it’s getting especially dire for black households in the city.
Author Cory Montag found water and sewer bills in 2019 will exceed 2 percent of median income—a commonly used affordability standard sourced from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—for black households in 118 of 200 census tracts. And by 2020, that’ll rise to 131 of 200 census tracts.
In 26 of those tracts, or roughly an eighth of the city, households will be spending at least 4 percent of their income on water and sewer service, double that aforementioned affordability standard.
“Baltimore’s water affordability crisis has, and will continue to have, a disproportionate and detrimental impact on the city’s Black neighborhoods,” the report states.
(Note: Standards for “affordable” vary; California also applies the 2 percent threshold for water service, while the United Nations caps the standard at 3 percent of household income. Montag said today that “2 to 2.5 percent” is generally accepted, but “it’s not perfect,” and that she hoped the report could help bring researchers together to come up with a “more validated” metric.)
City Council President Brandon Scott, City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton and a half-dozen colleagues from the city’s legislative body attended a press conference outside City Hall Tuesday announcing the findings.
Scott and Middleton used it as an opportunity to stump for the Water Accountability and Equity Act, a bill introduced by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young last December when he was still council president, that would scale low-income households’ water bills to how much they’re bringing in. It would create a customized monthly credit for those certain bill-payers, depending how close they are to the federal poverty line and, for the first time, make assistance available to renters. (City programs cater only to property owners.)
The legislation, which drew emotional testimony from bill payers at a public hearing last month, would also let participants apply their monthly payments to the overall balance they owe the city—reducing their debt by essentially double-counting payments—and establish an independent office to resolve disputes with due process.
“The only way to get rid of structural racial inequity is through policy,” Scott said, promising the council will pass the legislation. He added later, “no longer can black Baltimoreans bear the brunt of horrible water bills, erroneous water bills, shutoffs from water bills, high water bills. We have to have a process that works for all of Baltimore.”
Middleton said she’s planning work sessions by council members to discuss the bill, and that those dates would be announced soon.
The study also maintains the city’s recently banned practice of selling liens on homes and churches for water bill debt has disproportionately hurt low-income black Baltimoreans.
It cites data from the Tax Sale Prevention Project, an initiative of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service that held four clinics in the city in 2016 and 2017 for people facing the threat of tax sale due to unpaid water bills. In both years, the majority of the 257 clients they met with identified as black—80 percent in 2016 and 73 percent in 2017—and nearly two-thirds had household incomes under $30,000.
The new report comes on the heels of a legislative session in which Sen. Mary Washington (D-43rd District) and Del. Nick Mosby (D-40th District) successfully pushed a measure through to ban Baltimore’s tax sales for homes and churches tied to water bills debt.
It also arrives three weeks before water rates are set to rise another 10 percent, part of an approved three-year, 30 percent rate hike (with another one likely from 2023 to 2025, DPW has noted)—and as the city is weighing options to help low-income residents pay their water bills.
Noticeably absent from today’s presser for the report was Young. He’s no longer directly involved in the legislative process on the bill, his spokesman Lester Davis previously told Baltimore Fishbowl, and didn’t show for last month’s public hearing.
Meanwhile, he’s come to bat for the Department of Public Works, which has opposed the income-based water billing reform proposal, and is instead ramping up assistance for bill payers. Come July, the DPW-run Baltimore H20 Assists program will offer a flat 43 percent discount to households with income at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level (currently $36,365 for a home of three).
H20 Assists will also award a smaller $236 annual credit to households within 50 percent of the federal poverty line, and exempt participants from stormwater remediation and other fees tacked onto monthly bills. A DPW spokesperson previously said it will help as many as 43,000 customers when it rolls out next month.
Middleton said she and colleagues support boosting aid via Baltimore H20 Assists, “but there must be more.”
“It’s time for the Department of Public Works to sit down with us and work out a plan that we all can agree on and move the city forward,” the council’s second-ranking official said.
DPW said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that its H20 Assists program is “a sound and generous way of addressing the genuine concerns over water bill affordability confronting the City’s most economically fragile households.”
The agency also said it calculated that “a family of three enrolled in the BH2O Assists program will pay just 1.6 percent of the median household income toward water bills,” which is below the 2 percent affordability threshold sought by the LDF.
The LDF has said it endorses both the legislation and Baltimore H20 Assists, but particularly applauds the former’s creation of an independent office offering due process for water bill customers in resolving disputes in a system historically plagued by errors. With that office in place, those who aren’t satisfied with the outcome of their case would also have the option to take it to court.
In its report, the LDF recommends ways for water affordability advocates and suffering utility customers to litigate through what it calls the “water affordability crisis.”
They could bring complaints under the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, to challenge shutoffs and water lien-driven tax sales if they are overwhelmingly affecting black communities, the organization argues.
It also recommends bringing a due process claim under the 14th Amendment, or an intentional discrimination claim for water shutoffs happening only in black areas and not white ones, among other legal avenues.
This story has been updated.
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