...continued from part onePunitive measures
As many as one in 20 homes are disconnected for unpaid bills annually, according to the only national study. No one knows how many eventually catch-up on payments or have to learn to survive without water to flush the toilet, shower and cook. There’s no national watchdog and most census questions about water access and poverty have been eliminated since the 1980's.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the plight of people like Deborah O’Barr, 62, from Goodspring, Tennessee, and husband Bobby, 63, who’ve lived without running water since 2016 as they don’t have the money or correct paperwork to get a new meter.
“It feels like nobody cares. We must be the lowest of the low as far as the water company is concerned. We just don’t matter, not even during a pandemic,” said O’Barr, who relies on a local spring, rainwater and her son to fill containers.
As the virus spread, leaving tens of thousand dead and millions jobless, Detroit became the first city to suspend shutoffs and pledge to reconnect households disconnected in the previous year. In 2014, shortly after filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, the city launched a massive shutoff programme and has since disconnected at least 141,000 households, according to records obtained by news website Bridge.
The UN said the debt collection scheme violated human rights and condemned the disproportionate impact on African Americans, who account for about 80% of the city’s population.
As the virus spread, hundreds of localities and 13 states eventually issued moratoriums, though only a fraction agreed to reconnect those without running water because of unpaid bills.
This included New Orleans, Louisiana, where the water department has one of the country’s harshest shutoff programmes, disconnecting almost one in five households in 2016.
In New Orleans, our research found 79% of low income residents living in neighbourhoods with an unaffordable water burden – which could rise to 93% by 2030 if rates keep climbing. Bills have already doubled over the past decade, to $1,268 in 2018 - in a city where many rely on bottled water due to concerns about toxins - which means the poorest simply cannot afford to pay.
In 2018, about 30% of poor residents lived in areas where the average bill cost more than 12% of household income.
In total, almost a third of all water customers in New Orleans are considered “delinquent” and together owe well over $50m.
“It is difficult to argue with a conclusion that New Orleans is in the worst shape of the 12 cities studied,” according to Colton, when considering the depth and breadth of the water affordability crisis residents face.
Close behind are Cleveland, Ohio, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Santa Fe saw the smallest increase but the highest bill in 2018 at $1,845. By 2030, 99% of low income residents will live in neighbourhoods with unaffordable bills.
Nationwide, nobody knows how many Americans were without water at the start of the pandemic – nor how many were disconnected during. What is known is that financial aid to help families and utilities keep taps running was excluded from federal rescue packages.Is affordable water possible?
In Philadelphia, advocates working in a predominantly low income black and brown neighbourhood in 2014 came across people who’d been without running water for decades – forced to use plastic bags for the toilet and bottled water to wash their hands. “It was widespread, and clearly a human rights issue,” said Rachel Lopez, director of the west Philadelphia legal clinic. “A man-made drought disproportionately affecting low income people of colour.”
Some people were denied a water account because their names weren’t on the deeds or lease – so-called tangled titles, which are fairly common among low income communities. Others were shutoff after accumulating large debts, sometimes inherited, often exacerbated by fines, and some simply couldn’t afford to pay for a replacement pipe or meter.
Our research shows that between 2010 and 2018, the number of poor Philadelphians living in neighbourhoods where water is unaffordable doubled to 54% as bills topped $900. During the first three months of the pandemic, the city reconnected almost 9,000 homes.
Colton worked with the city to create the tiered assistance programme (TAP) after it emerged that in 2017 around 40% of water customers were behind on their bills – amounting to $242m in uncollected revenue.
The premise is pretty simple: the most effective way to improve compliance – and maximise revenue – is to make bills affordable, in other words based on a person’s ability to pay, like the energy sector has been doing for years.
The programme has made an impact: about 15,000 people are currently enrolled, though this is still far short of the 60,000 households estimated to be eligible even before the current economic disaster.
But, the city continues to convert water debt into tax liens, and once a month, these properties are auctioned off at a sheriff’s tax sale.
“Water debts are clustered in communities of colour which disproportionately devalue their homes and neighbourhoods,” said attorney Robert Ballenger from Community Legal Services.
In a move welcomed by advocates, city officials recently agreed to introduce debt forgiveness, which should mean that TAP enrollees will see their water debts wiped – no matter how big – after two years of compliance.
This could be a game changer, as currently water debt is a burden passed down through generations.
Earlier this year, Cheryl Gregg, 50, returned from the hospital after being admitted with high blood pressure and respiratory problems, to find that the water had been disconnected – this time because of a leaking pipe. “I had to take an Uber to my daughter’s house to wash and buy bottled water, it’s expensive. I have no income,” Greg said from her hospital bed, after being readmitted a few days later.
This was not the first time, according to daughter Amber, 28, who recalls months camped out at relatives’ houses because they couldn’t afford the water bill. “My mom and grandma had a lot of health problems and couldn’t work, we got cut off so many times. We never knew what we’d find after school every day, no lights or no water, it was so stressful,” she said.
The water debt, which includes interest and penalties, is over $26,000.
Greg is now on TAP and the family hope the debt will be forgiven. Amber, who works two jobs at a parking company and a burger joint, said: “I make sure my mom pays every month so we don’t lose the house.”Water industry response
Water providers are aware of the rising burden on people from bills due to the costs of aging infrastructure and “want to find ways to assist them while being responsible stewards of the water system”, according to Greg Kail, of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), whose members include water utilities.
Responding to the Guardian’s research, Kail said there was no “silver bullet” to solve affordability but said “significant progress” had been made, citing the AWWA’s research last year that more than 80% of large water utilities have a capital assistance program, up from 60% a year earlier.
Cleveland Water did not comment on Montgomery’s case but said it was committed to building a “more equitable water future”.https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise