Photo by Ángelo González
Photo by Ángelo González

No one likes a higher water bill. However, ongoing increases in the water and sewer rates in Baltimore could leave Baltimore’s impoverished residents in particularly dire straits without more help from the city, according to a new report from the Abell Foundation.

Just last year, 15 percent of the city’s water and sewer customers were delinquent on their bills, leaving customers collectively owing the city more than $20 million, writes author Joan Jacobson in “Keeping the Water On.” Those who don’t pay their water bills face service shutoffs from April through October, or worse, can lose their homes if the property is sold away in a tax sale when they can’t repay a lien from the city. The shutoffs create new health threats for many who already live in neighborhoods with sub-par living conditions.

These issues could only worsen under a three-year overall 33-percent rate hike. A third of the rate increase already took effect last month. The increases are happening to help pay for large-scale sewer and water infrastructure overhauls, which the city also desperately needs.

The City of Baltimore already offers programs for the city’s poor and elderly residents with paying their water bills. Among those are: An annual low-income assistance credit for delinquent customers with incomes 175 percent below the federal poverty level; a 43-percent discount for senior citizens with a household income of $30,000 or less; exemptions from the rain tax, used to fund Chesapeake Bay restoration, for those with financial hardship; and payment plans to keep the water on, among other options.

However, these programs “are inconsistently promoted and are inadequate to address the depth and breadth of need,” Jacobson writes in her report. Payment plans aren’t based on household affordability, those who miss one payment can be immediately eligible to have their water shut off and, even under new payment plan options from DPW, those who accept one aren’t eligible for the low-income assistance credit.

As for the amount of the credit, it has only increased 79 percent – from $100 to $179 per year – in the last decade, and will jump another 10 percent for the next three years (to $197). By comparison, water and sewer rates have climbed nearly 127 percent and, as mentioned earlier, are jumping another 33 percent in the next three years.

For some perspective, here’s how that increase looks compared to U.S. inflation.

Courtesy Abell Foundation/Joan Jacobson
Courtesy Abell Foundation/Joan Jacobson

Jacobson writes that some of these issues could be remedied if the city boosts the amount of the credit or establishes a payment plan system based on household income, as other cities have done. Other potential improvements that she notes would be eliminating water bill liens that lead to homes being sold at tax sale and creating incentives for those who conserve water. As we noted before, the new billing system introduced this year doesn’t exactly benefit those trying to reduce their water consumption.

DPW Director Rudy Chow declined to be interviewed in Jacobson’s report, but issued a statement defending the water shutoffs as mostly applying to vacant homes. The department only started collecting data to verify that claim this past year, Jacobson writes.

Chow did say that his department is “trying everything we can to make sure we are not hurting the most vulnerable customers. But we are a regional provider of drinking water, meeting the needs of 1.8 million people every day. We have a fiduciary responsibility to our customers in the city and in the surrounding counties.”

DPW did recently step up its customer service, moving its service center to the lobby floor of building at 200 Holliday Street. The department also installed new meters at homes around the city that allow for online tracking of water consumption, though that perk is still being rolled out. Once that is up and running, the city should be able to better track which homes are vacant when shutting water off.

While the city needs money to boost its infrastructure, there is a way get those funds without disproportionately hurting the poorest residents. Philadelphia has managed to adopt an affordability-based system for low-income residents amid a similar overhaul of its aged infrastructure.

After all, drinking water is a human right, according to the United Nations, whether you live in a U.S. city or an impoverished developing country.

Avatar photo

Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...