Running tap in Flint, Michigan, where unpaid bills for contaminated water led to evictions. Carlos Barria/Reuters

New legislation to charge water bills based on monthly income is cropping up in Philadelphia and Baltimore, designed to keep people from drowning in water debt.

Robbie Burks had a leak. It was a slow leak, seeping from a pipe all the way down in the basement, not persistent enough to accumulate in inches but enough to leave the floors damp. And enough to suddenly, without warning, transform Burks’ $45 monthly water bill into a three-figure sum that continued to climb. After two years of the persistent trickle, she received a final bill notice for a whopping $46,000.

New legislation to start charging for water based on resident monthly income is cropping up in cities across the U.S., designed to make sure people like Burks stop drowning in water debt. Philadelphia’s Tiered Assistance Program, or TAP, was launched this June. Now, similar legislation is in its drafting and proposal stage in San Francisco and Baltimore.

Water bills might appear to represent only a marginal monthly cost, but they can add up. In Flint, Michigan, the city threatened to evict over 8,000 residents for money they owed on contaminated, undrinkable water. And in Baltimore last year, over 1,000 homes went up for tax sale over unpaid water bills. This burden often falls on the city’s most vulnerable. In Philadelphia, city councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez was inspired to draft the legislation that became TAP after discovering that her constituents—a population concentrated in neighborhoods with the oldest housing stock and the highest poverty rates—owed 20 percent of the city’s water debt, despite representing only 10 percent of the total population.

Burks, 65, is a retired travel agent and a widow, with an income that falls below 125 percent of the poverty rate. She hadn’t been able to afford to hire a plumber to fix the leak, nor had she been able to keep up with the unusually high monthly water charges on top of her mortgage and electricity payments. As the leak continued, the fines racked up. She was paralyzed.

“When you’re in a situation like that and you’re concerned about them shutting your water service off, it can be debilitating,” she says. Eventually, the city identified her at-risk status and intervened, sending a plumber to the house, and a case manager to connect her with housing stabilization programs. But stories like hers bolstered the already mounting evidence: Philadelphia’s water assistance program needed an overhaul. Now that Burks is signed up for the TAP program, her bills hover around $45-$65 a month.

The program applies credits towards water costs at the city level, so the subsidized bills customers receive range between 2 and 4 percent of a customer’s total household income, regardless of usage. And anyone in Philadelphia whose income falls under 150 percent of the federal poverty rate is eligible to apply, as well as residents experiencing a special hardship (such as a death in the family, domestic violence, or recent unemployment).

TAP replaces Philadelphia’s old method of assistance, the Water Revenue Assistance Program, deemed a less effective model because it allowed slower payments for people already behind on their bills, but did not forgive mounting debts, explains Keysha Abad, Utility Housing Stabilization case manager at the Philadelphia Utility Emergency Services Fund. “Customers were continuing to fall behind, and some customers who could not afford it would still end up having their water services shut off,” says Joann Dahme, general manager of public affairs with the Philadelphia Water Department.

Under TAP, however, customers do not have to be delinquent to apply—in fact, the city encourages all eligible residents to sign up before things get dire. Past-due amounts on monthly bills are forgiven, as long as customers pay their TAP-adjusted bills on time every month for two years.

Philadelphia’s TAP program is only in its infancy: the city has a population of 1.6 million and a 26% poverty rate, and city officials estimate that 60,000 families are eligible for the program. And it is just beginning to review its first round of applications.

Now, Baltimore is looking to Philadelphia’s system as a model for their own proposal.

“The UN has identified a percentage level of household income [3%] that is a threshold for what you shouldn’t have to spend for access to clean water,” says Baltimore City Councilmember Bill Henry, who is working with the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition and City Council President Bernard Young to draft a bill. “And we have a disturbingly high percentage of people in Baltimore who are paying more than that.”

Testimonies submitted by Baltimore residents to the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland and shared with CityLab by Food & Water Watch revealed the breadth of need there. There are seniors whose rates have climbed while their incomes have remained fixed. There are those who have recently lost spouses (sometimes primary bread-winners), children, or parents. “I exhausted everything caring [for] and burying my mother,” one man, who asked not to be identified, writes. “Bills became overwhelming and I am looking for any assistance that I can get.” There are others who are sick, or injured, or unemployed. And those whose stories are uniquely complicated: another man, for example, who returned home from a stay at his daughter’s apartment to find a very high water bill. “My son and his friends became squatters,” he writes. “[They] had used the toilet in the basement and did not stop the toilet from leaking water for two to three months.”

These stories are especially troubling because in Baltimore, unpaid water bills of as little as $750 (and as little as $350 for a non-owner occupied unit) have caused families to lose their homes. Baltimore’s unusually harsh policy authorizes the city to convert those leftover balances into a tax lien, which, if left unpaid, authorizes the city to put a house up for tax sale.

A Maryland state task force is planning to re-examine the out-dated tax sale laws this year, too.

Baltimore’s means-tested water bill proposal would cover a broader swath of low-income residents than TAP, and set a lower cap on payments.

Who pays?

So if low-income residents are no longer saddled with these burdens, who is? Some of the cost of the program will be absorbed by other rate-payers in the system, explains Henry, while he also expects that, once bills are reduced to a more manageable level, other gaps will be filled by the same rate-payers who were once truant. “If the bill is something people can afford, then they will pay it,” he says.

A new Baltimore DPW program instituted this summer has already sought to ease the burden of payments, by shifting the frequency of bills from quarterly to monthly. “[DPW] specifically did that knowing that people at lower levels of income are more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck,” explains Henry. “It’s harder for them to set aside money so that they could pay one big bill every 3 months—it’s much easier to pay a third of that bill every month.” This system has run into glitches of its own, however: in September, some bills showed inaccurately high levels of consumption.

In Philadelphia, as the water trickled out into Burks’ side yard and the weight of her debt mounted, the city, too, shouldered the weight of her $40,000 bill and the wasted resources. For a single-user household, the average monthly water usage should have been around 3 cubic feet of water. When inspectors finally came to the house, they discovered she was using closer to 630—almost the amount of water used for an apartment building of over 100 residents.

“The labor and material to fix this was $600-700, but the monthly water bill was reduced from $4,000 to $40,” recalled John Rowe, Executive Director of the Utility Emergency Services Fund. “Afterwards, there were no further leakages there—in terms of money or water.” Philadelphia’s current Water Stabilization Program pairs residents with monitors who look for signs of high usage, which was what ultimately stopped Burks’ leak—only two years too late. Rowe hopes that through TAP, Philadelphia will have an impetus to develop a more effective warning system. With the city accountable for more of the bill, there may be greater incentive to address the underlying source of water-related problems.

Last year in Philadelphia, the Water Department estimated that 40% of payers were behind on water bills, for a total delinquency of $262 million. “As we face a variety of funding challenges, one of the best ways we can handle this is to have people not come back to us year after year for the same thing,” explains Rowe. “So that’s when we shifted our something that is more long-lasting; where there is an actual change in outcome for a family, and it can possibly move the needle of poverty in the city.”

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