Here’s How to Help Baltimore Residents Who Can’t Pay Their Water Bills

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Photo by Marcus Quigmire, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether or not you agree with one independent economist’s thesis that the city’s water rates are contributing to a downward spiral for the city and low-income Baltimoreans, there’s not much to argue: Water service is becoming less affordable for a sizable share of local residents.

Fortunately, there’s an organization out there to address this problem. The Human Utility, a venture founded in 2014, seeks to raise money for families in Detroit and Baltimore who can’t afford to keep the water on. The website lets users simply pick one of the two cities and donate money toward a family’s water and sewer bills.

Founder Tiffani Bell told Fast Company in April she hopes the tool can harness public generosity to help families, though she admitted it alone won’t solve the problem of unaffordable public water service.

“I want it to grow and help more people, but I ultimately want it to not have to exist,” she said. “I want cities to think about the effect of water policy and have it be where water is affordable for everyone.”

City utility rates are currently in the second year of a three-year hike – roughly 10 percent for water, 9 percent for sewer each year – designed to help pay for massive infrastructural repairs to Baltimore’s pipes. Unfortunately, those rate increases are an inconvenient cost to some, and an unaffordable one to many.

In a report prepared for Food and Water Watch Maryland, Boston-based economist Roger Colton predicted the typical annual residential water bill in Baltimore will have tripled by 2022 compared to 2010, and that more than half of city residents making median income (relative to their neighborhoods) won’t be able to afford water and sewer bills by 2019.

One in four locals, he pointed out, are already living at or below the federal poverty line, and are even less able to affordable service. With rates continuing to climb, he argued the city will actually lose more revenue than before the rate hikes, since increasing numbers of residents will be unable to pay.

To fall behind on the water bill in Baltimore is to risk losing one’s livelihood. Those who are delinquent on two billing cycles’ (and $250) worth of payments can have their water shut off; those who fall far behind on payments can have their homes taken away, sold by the city at tax lien sales.

Given Colton’s dour predictions for local water and sewer billing (unless someone introduces an income-scaled system for poor residents, he argues), and the fact that we are in the traditional giving period of the holidays, you might consider making a donation to The Human Utility. And, if you know someone in Baltimore who can use some extra help paying off their water and sewer debt, refer them here.

Ethan McLeod
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