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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

by Fern Shen5:05 pmJun 10, 20190

Study shows the disparate impact of water rates on black Baltimore

A NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund report finds that escalating water and sewer rates hit African-American residents hardest

Above: Baltimore residents protest water rate hikes in front of City Hall last year. (Fern Shen)

It’s well known that Baltimore’s fast-rising water rates are producing unaffordable water bills for vast swaths of the population – meaning the bills exceed the widely accepted standard of 2% of median income.

But a study released today points out precisely who in Baltimore suffers disproportionately from these sky-high rates – the city’s black residents.

It’s a national problem that’s bound to get worse largely due to deferred maintenance on aging infrastructure, according to the report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and its Thurgood Marshall Institute.

“The price of water has greatly increased in recent decades. Scores of communities across the nation that cannot afford to pay higher rates have been plagued by service disconnections and lien sales, leading to home foreclosures and evictions,” the report says, arguing that these practices “disproportionately impact people of color.”

To illustrate the point, the report hones in on two cities where water crises are particularly severe: Baltimore and Cleveland.

In 2019, Baltimore water bills will exceed 2% of black median income in 118 of the city’s 200 census tracts, according to the analysis.

The situation will worsen in 2020 with 131 census tracts – almost all of them majority black – exceeding the widely accepted standard.

Roughly 65% of Baltimore’s black population lives in these 118 tracts.

Next year, the report says, the situation will worsen with 131 census tracts – almost all of them majority black – exceeding the widely accepted standard.

In the poorest areas of Baltimore, water charges are impacting residents even more harshly:

There are five census tracts where water charges this year will consume 6% to 8% of black median income, according to “Water/Color: A Study of Race and the Water Affordability Crisis in America’s Cities.”

 Support for Council Bill

Advocates for water customers plan to present the study tomorrow at a news conference outside City Hall that is expected to include Council President Brandon M. Scott.

Scott is expected to call for stronger water affordability protections through the Water Accountability & Equity Act introduced last year by then-Council President (and now Mayor) Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

Bill 18-0307, which would cap water bills on a sliding scale for low-income households, came on the heels of an announcement by that caught some officials by surprise – a three-year 30% increase in water and sewer rates.

The rate hike would raise water rates by 9.9% each year through June 2022 and sewer rates by 9% annually.

In announcing the rate hike, the Department of Public Works gave its own version of water bill relief, a discount on water rates for households with incomes below 175% of the federal poverty level.

Representatives of the advocacy group, Food & Water Watch, have called DPW’s “Baltimore H2O Assists” program inadequate because it doesn’t cap bills, which Young’s measure would.

Two Decades of Soaring Bills

The study’s conclusions should come as no surprise to Baltimore water customers, who know about the steady rise in their monthly bills from personal experience.

Between 2010 and 2018, the report notes, Baltimore has increased the cost of water and sewer service astronomically, according to the city’s own figures:

Water rates have increased every year since 2002. This breakdown comes from the DPW.

Baltimore water rate hikes by year. (Department of Public Works)

Future Unaffordability

The researchers also examine to what extent water bills will be unaffordable in the future.

Citing calculations by attorney and economist Roger Colton, they say the average Baltimore water customer’s bill is expected to rise to $1,115 by 2022, more than triple the average bill of $350 in 2010.

The average Baltimore water customer’s bill is expected to rise to $1,115 by 2022.

Black residents may be disproportionately impacted not only by these ballooning bills, but by the city’s aggressive attempts to collect from customers.

Data from the Tax Sale Prevention Project point to what demographic is saddled with water liens.

The vast majority of those attending the project’s Tax Sale Prevention Clinics have identified as black and have reported incomes of less than $30,000, the report notes.

What To Do?

Policy changes are a part of the answer, according to author Coty Montag, who praised Young’s bill as well as legislation introduced by state Sen. Mary Washington and signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan that bans the practice of placing liens on homes and churches for unpaid water bills.

Litigation not legislation, however, is the major strategy discussed as a way for water equality advocates to “challenge municipalities’ discriminatory water practices.”

The 104-page report analyzes a range of potential procedural or substantive due process claims under the 14th Amendment.

And it summarizes other possible remedies advocates could recommend for water customers – in particular, bringing a claim under the U.S. Fair Housing Act.

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