Two programs offering Baltimore residents nearly $3 million to help repair costly water leaks and sewage backups have paid out only about 1% of that aid, spurring talk of reforms.

A $775,000 hardship fund established in 2014 to assist low-income city residents in covering the costs of broken water and sewer pipes has paid out about $15,000 to just eight households, according to data Maryland Legal Aid gathered through a public information request.

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The city also has paid 10 residents about $15,000 from a $2 million fund launched last year to help clean up sewage backups inside homes, according to a recent quarterly city report. The city approved 1 in 7 of requests for money from the fund.

“That is a lot of good that could be done to deal with the aging pipes in our city,” said Amy Hennen, managing attorney for consumer and housing law with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, “and they’re not doing it.”

The questions and criticism about how the money is being disbursed come as city residents cope with the failure of infrastructure that can be as much as a century old. As the city works to repair and replace old water mains, billing rates are set to rise 9% annually for three years in a row. Similar work on sewer infrastructure is mandated under federal environmental law. In recent years, there has been a surge in waste backups in city homes.

The city hired HomeServe, a home warranty company, in 2014 to offer city residents insurance on privately owned water and sewer lines. The company established and paid for the $775,000 hardship fund as part of its agreement with the city, instead of paying an administrative fee to the city for its contract, spokesman Myles Meehan said.

The company “is ready and able to assist the homeowners the city refers to us,” Meehan said of the fund.

City Public Works spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said the department refers residents seeking financial assistance to HomeServe “without waiting for verification to be completed, so that they can start the process.”

Public Works officials said residents can access the hardship fund if they are eligible for city water bill assistance. That program offers 43% discounts to residents with income of up to 175% of federal poverty levels, plus $257 annual grants to residents at or below 50% of the poverty line.

Raymond did not offer an explanation when asked why so few residents have received the hardship money. He did urge residents to take advantage of HomeServe insurance policies, which the company said have covered $13.4 million in repair expenses over the past five years.

“We continue to encourage homeowners to consider the HomeServe contract due to the aging pipes on the private side of the meter," Raymond said in an email. "Just as we are replacing break-prone water mains, private service lines (often water pipes made of galvanized metal or sewer pipes made of clay) are subject to wear and tear.”

Data the city provided to Maryland Legal Aid — that it released this week — shows residents received checks from the hardship fund ranging from $641 to $4,851 for work on leaky water service lines and indoor plumbing, mostly in 2015 and 2016. The last payout through the program came in January 2018, the document shows.

The $2 million program to help pay for sewage backups was launched in spring 2018 amid resident complaints about the messes created when heavy rains backed up the system into their homes. It’s part of the city’s federal consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to spend $1.6 billion to repair the aging system and stop sewage pollution from fouling waterways.

The program offers up to $2,500 in reimbursement for sewage cleanup costs if residents report backups by calling 311 within 24 hours, but the backups must be caused by heavy rain and not clogs.

A recent city report shows more than 70 residents have applied for reimbursement since the program launched last April, and the city approved 10 of those requests. In two dozen cases, applications were denied because residents did not notify the city of a backup within the first 24 hours.

Raymond said Public Works continues to examine applications for assistance based on criteria in the consent decree approved by a federal judge.

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The sewage program is facing scrutiny from city and state officials. The Maryland Department of the Environment, which helps oversee the consent decree, held a public hearing last month as it assesses whether the reimbursement program, technically a three-year pilot initiative, should be made permanent. Department spokesman Jay Apperson said the clear message was that advocates are “dissatisfied” with the program, and state and federal officials are now discussing recommendations for immediate changes to it.

And City Council passed a resolution in August calling for various city officials to appear at an investigatory hearing on the program Nov. 13.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of impact on peoples’ lives,” said Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, lead sponsor of the resolution. “Any effort to help make people whole, I’m supportive of.”

Consumer advocates say the limited financial help being made available to residents — via either program — presents yet another challenge in what they say is a broken water billing system. They are pushing for reforms to make the system fairer and more equitable. The legislation, which passed out of a city council committee last month, would cap water bills at a percentage of residents’ income; give renters access to billing information, dispute resolution and payment assistance; and establish an independent consumer advocate office.

The bill is expected to come up for a second-reader vote Oct. 28, and council President Brandon Scott “strongly supports” it, spokeswoman Stefanie Mavronis said.

She said the council president’s office also would be digging for more information about why more residents haven’t qualified for the HomeServe hardship fund.

The data on the program “makes the case for a stronger customer advocacy process and system both for people who are seeking financial support and for those who are looking for some recourse when they think there’s an issue with a bill they’ve received," Mavronis said.

For legal groups that help residents deal with water billing issues and other problems, it has been difficult to navigate the system, Hennen said, suggesting that hurdles are more significant for residents trying to resolve their own disputes with the city. When she and other lawyers helped their clients apply for water repair assistance, they never heard anything back, she said.

“It was sort of a frustrating black hole,” Hennen said.

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Now that documents provided to Legal Aid through the public information request gave a clearer window into the process for accessing the hardship fund, she said, she hopes that changes.

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