Tue, 03/23/2021

Anna Morgan and Cindy Xie

Utility companies across the country have been outsourcing their customer assistance services. If they can find "third parties" to do this work, they can usually save money. They can also focus their limited staff time on other management tasks. Consumer assistance programs, or CAPs, operate differently in different cities. Utilities typically design the programs to support customers with disabilities, customers 65 and older, and customers at a certain percent at or below the...

Wed, 12/16/2020

Anna Morgan

During the spring of 2020, many states and cities enacted moratoria on water shutoffs in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. These were aimed at protecting the growing number of suddenly unemployed people from having their water disconnected because they could not pay their bills. Communities of color are particularly vulnerable to the recent water affordability crisis—as well as the pandemic. The states, cities, and utility companies involved understood the dire nature of the...

Tue, 10/13/2020

Amber Kim

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of access to clean water for public health as it is essential to maintain personal hygiene and sanitation. As the pandemic hit the US in March 2020, states and cities started to impose moratoriums on water shutoffs. This meant that people who were unable to pay their monthly water bills were not at risk of having their water shutoff. Warner et al. (2020) conducted a...

Wed, 02/05/2020

Emmett McKinney

Nearly all 2020 presidential candidates stress the importance of upgrading America’s water infrastructure. Yet, the question of how to finance these upgrades while protecting the most vulnerable from rate increases and shutoffs is just now coming into focus.

Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, released his infrastructure plan last month...

Tue, 01/29/2019

Marian Swain

Will 2019 be the year that policymakers in American cities wake up to the water affordability crisis? The outlook is mixed, with some cities taking hopeful policy action and others stuck in the historical status quo. Here are some updates from across the country: 

Worcester, MA

In Worcester, Massachusetts, recent reporting has revealed the damage wreaked by the city’s policy of taking properties to tax auction for unpaid water bills. Residents in Worcester can see their...

Fri, 11/16/2018

A bipartisan pair of Senators recently unveiled legislation to address the growing crisis of water affordability in America. The Low-Income Water Customer Assistance Programs Act (S.3564), sponsored by Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), would establish a pilot program to fund low-income water assistance programs in 32 public water utilities across the country. 

The bill allows for flexibility in...

Wed, 10/10/2018

The city of Baltimore has been a focal point of research on water affordability. Aging water infrastructure and fiscal problems have led the city’s public water utility to continually raise rates, producing an epidemic of water service shut-offs that disproportionately impact low-income residents. Last spring, Haleemah Qureshi published a Master’s thesis examining the financial and social circumstances driving Baltimore’s water crisis. Her research, titled Binding Civil and Civic Infrastructure: The Need for...

Thu, 06/28/2018

Marian Swain

Citing the growing burden that rising water bills present for many American households, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, introduced the Water Affordability Act of 2018 earlier this month. The bill would establish a federal program called the Low Income Sewer and Water Assistance Program (LISWAP) that would provide grants to eligible...

Fri, 04/27/2018

Marian Swain

While many of us are celebrating the start of spring, water affordability advocates are bracing themselves for the onset of another water shut-off season. Water utilities in Northern cities refrain from conducting water service shutoffs during the winter months, but the season typically starts up again in April or May and lasts through October. This year, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is expected to begin sending shut-off notices to residents with overdue bills starting next...

Fri, 03/02/2018

Marian Swain

As rising water bills and devastating water shutoffs continue to plague cities around the country, some local governments are considering comprehensive water affordability programs that would adjust rates based on customers’ incomes. The policy debate around these programs typically centers around how affordability programs would impact utility revenues and how qualifying income thresholds should be set. But in Detroit, there is some concern that an income-based water affordability program...

Tue, 01/16/2018

Marian Swain

Shortly before the New Year, water affordability advocates released a major report proposing solutions to the growing water affordability crisis in Baltimore. The report was commissioned by Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group, and prepared by Roger Colton, a leading water affordability expert and independent consultant. The report comes at an important time as...

Fri, 12/08/2017

Marian Swain

How do we define whether water service is “affordable”? If a water bill is 2 percent or less of a city’s median household income, is that affordable? That is the definition used by the EPA, at least for now.

As part of its authority in enforcing the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency sets affordability guidelines for municipal water and sewer bills. But the current set of guidelines, written in 1997, has come under...

Mon, 11/20/2017

Water protestors in Baltimore

In 2015, Americans were shocked by the revelations that residents of Flint, Michigan had been unknowingly drinking dangerous, lead-contaminated water for months. The city had switched its water supply to cut costs and residents were paying the price. 

A safe, reliable drinking water supply is something most of us take for granted in the United States, but the Flint crisis exposed the grim reality that many Americans do not enjoy water security. In “shrinking cities” across the...