2019: The year of water affordability reform in America?

January 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 property taken to tax auction for any unpaid water or sewer bills more than 18 months overdue. Investors buy up the liens, eager to collect premiums from high interest rates and fees. In one memorable case reported by WGBH and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, an unpaid bill of less than $200 had landed the property at auction. If the property goes to foreclosure, the tax sales become a boon for city governments, too: The reporters found that investors had paid the city of Worcester more than $2.6 million in premiums in the last three years. 

Not all cities and towns in Massachusetts take properties to tax sale for unpaid water bills, but the practice has proven lucrative for the cities that collect these premiums. The city of Baltimore is notorious for this practice as well. However, two new bills filed in the Massachusetts legislature this session seek to change the policy to protect property owners facing tax sale for water and sewer debt. While lawmakers try to garner enough support for these policies, many Massachusetts homeowners remain at risk of losing their homes for unpaid water bills.

Baltimore, MD

In Baltimore, Maryland, the Board of Estimates approved a 30 percent water rate increase at the end of last year. Although the new rate policy also includes expanded assistance for low-income customers, the rate hike was met with concern by many who have been pushing for water affordability reform. The DPW announced the rate hike as Baltimore City Council President Jack Young was about to introduce the Water Accountability and Equity Act, a reform bill that would implement a true income-based water affordability program, effectively capping water rates at 3 percent of household income for low-income customers. The rate hike also comes in the wake of a landmark vote to prevent privatization of the city’s water utility in November. Baltimore customers will have to brace for the rate hike as Council President Young continues the push-and-pull negotiations with the DPW over his proposed reform bill. 

Detroit, MI

In Detroit, Michigan, public pressure on the water utility is mounting as faith groups, low-income advocates, and academics call for change to address water affordability. A new 100-page report authored by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California Berkeley calls for major reforms and reinvestments to repair Detroit’s aging water infrastructure and protect residents increasingly struggling to afford basic water and sewer service. Faith leaders held an event to unveil the report and call attention to the city’s water affordability crisis. The report also comes after the city saw another wave of public protests against water shutoffs in October.

The drumbeat of reporting and research from dedicated journalists, academics, and advocates may make 2019 the year that city and state governments, and even the US Congress, recognize the water affordability crisis and take necessary measures to make sure all Americans can afford access to this basic and crucial service. However, there are still many hurdles for water affordability reform, not least the lack of baseline data on water shutoffs from many utilities. We’ll continue following these and other stories as the water affordability debate continues across the country in 2019.

Image credit: Emily Judem via WGBH News