Water is a basic human right, Baltimore

Does Baltimore want to be the next Detroit with its water shut-off plan?

Thousands of families catching rainwater to drink, using water from their neighbors to flush toilets — have we learned nothing from those recent scenes in Detroit, where families rallied in the streets when the city starting shutting off the water? The United Nations said the shut off was a violation of the "most basic human rights," and caravans from Canada even drove to Detroit to hand out free water to its neediest residents.

Baltimore City risks a similar emergency as our Public Works Department plans to shut off the tap on tens of thousands of low-income residents next week with little notice and no public hearing. This non-transparent plan is unconscionable for many reasons, not least of which is its effect on renters.

One of our clients started renting her Baltimore rowhouse in November 2014. Recently, she received a notice that the landlord owes more than $5,000 on the water bill; now she faces imminent water shut-off through no fault of her own. She did not rack up a $5,000 bill in five short months, yet she has no good options. She cannot start her own account because Baltimore water refuses to open an account in the name of anyone other than the property owner. While she can seek relief through a rent escrow process in court, that will take weeks if not months, and there is no guarantee that water will ever be restored — particularly if the landlord suddenly goes MIA, as often happens in this kind of situation. Our client can attempt to move, but her family does not have the requisite money for a security deposit, two months rent, and moving expenses on such short notice. In short, her family is at extreme risk of living in uninhabitable conditions or homelessness.

Our organization, the Public Justice Center, is a non-profit that represents or advises hundreds of people like this client each year. Fully half of all Baltimore City residents rent their homes. Low-income renters are in a particularly precarious situation because they cannot get their own water accounts, and Baltimore Public Works does not allow them to challenge inaccurate billing practices or adjust for leaks because the accounts are not in their names. Without water, low-income renting families will be deprived by the city of a crucial necessity of human life.

Beware the city's suggestion that those of us who do pay our water bills are subsidizing other residents. The majority of the subsidy goes to commercial property owners, who account for $15 million of the $28 million owed in the city. Why not start with their taps first? Also, note that Baltimore water is giving businesses the white glove treatment, placing repeated phone calls to business owners trying to work out a payment plan before any shut-off. How many personal calls are Baltimore City residents receiving?

Public Works' new policy is short-sighted and downright inhumane to low-income renters who are often caught in between the water company and their landlords. At the very least, if the city is going to engage in this new collection method, the city should allow renters to open accounts in their own names and permit them to challenge inaccurate billings and leaks. Baltimore City Public Works should also conduct more extensive outreach to residents about the planned shut-offs — as it has done for commercial properties.

And the city should prioritize payment plans and subsidies for low-income homeowners to avoid tax sale foreclosure — a possibility for homeowners with past due water bills of as little as $500. But for grossly negligent landlords like the owner of our client's property, the city should force a change in ownership to a responsible owner through a tax sale foreclosure. The city itself could foreclose on the water bill lien and transfer the property to a non-profit community development corporation like Druid Heights CDC or a community land trust like the Charm City Land Trust or North East Housing Initiative. This would transfer the property to community control and provide more desperately needed permanently affordable housing.

Persisting on the current path instead will undoubtedly lead to a Detroit-like existence where low-income residents pray for rain, not to water their plants but so that they can drink and flush toilets. The city should prioritize ensuring access to basic services and safeguarding human rights for its most vulnerable citizens — not squeezing the last drop of dignity from thousands of low-income households for relatively little financial gain.

Matt Hill and Zafar Shah are staff attorneys at the Public Justice Center. They can be reached at hillm@publicjustice.org and shahz@publicjustice.org

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