New study urges Baltimore to act against rising water rates that disproportionately affect African Americans

A new study on race and water affordability, which focuses part of its findings in Baltimore, suggests African Americans are disproportionately negatively affected by rising water bills and concludes by urging city leaders to pass new legislation to address the issue.

Water/Color: A Study of Race and the Water Affordability Crisis in America’s Cities,” the study by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, shows disparities of water affordability among African Americans in Baltimore, citing a “disproportionate and detrimental impact on the city’s black’s neighborhoods.”

The 100-page study, published Monday, examines Baltimore as one of two “city studies,” stating that “Baltimore’s water rates have risen more rapidly than the national average.”

City Council President Brandon Scott and Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton showed their support Tuesday for a new measure, called the Water Accountability and Affordability Act, which aims to alleviate issues caused by the city’s water billing system.

“As a council, we need to pass the [Water Accountability and Equity Act] that’s before us right now to protect black Baltimoreans and all low-income water users. We know the system is broken,” Scott said. “We know the system is hurting black Baltimore. We know that Baltimore has a history of being a very inequitable city, especially around race.”

The Water Accountability and Equity Act, introduced by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, would create the Water-for-All Affordability Program and the Office of Water-Customer Advocacy to give Baltimore residents a clear avenue to dispute water bills and to provide certain Baltimore residents with financial assistance for water and sewer bills.

Middleton, who chairs the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, said the committee is planning work sessions with the Department of Public Works to “negotiate,” describing DPW as “not doing enough [for] the people who pay taxes, work hard and live in this city.”

“Water bills have been affecting all of our constituents on the council and this entire city for many years. I know it’s come to head,” Middleton said. “It’s time for the Department of Public Works to sit down with us and work out a plan that we all can agree on and move this city forward.”

Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for the DPW, said a department plan that begins July 1 called “Baltimore H2O Assists” takes household income into consideration and provides rate reductions and fee waivers, among other benefits, to individuals at 175 percent of federal poverty guidelines. He said an additional monthly credit is available for households at or below 50 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

“We're proud of this and look forward to helping more of our customers,” he said.

The study states that in recent decades, the price of water has “skyrocketed” in cities across America due to “failing infrastructure.” The same is true for Baltimore City. In January 2019, the city approved a 30% water rate increase over the next three years, and in February 2019, the city announced it had received a $200 million loan from EPA to fund wastewater infrastructure upgrades.

Baltimore residents have seen an increase in their water bills in recent years due to an expected $2 billion cost to replace the city’s antiquated water infrastructure, the study states. From 2014 to 2018, the average cost for water and wastewater services for Baltimore residents increased 37%, swelling to an average annual bill between $517 and $787, according to the defense fund’s study.

The study documents the history of residential segregation and African Americans’ access to water systems, stating “as U.S. cities became more racially segregated, localities prioritized services to white areas.”

“Increased patterns of residential segregation enabled municipalities to more easily deprive majority black neighborhoods of access to essential services, including water and sewer,” Coty Montag, the study’s author, wrote.

As cities grew over time, local leadership grappled with the choice of offering private or municipal ownership of waterworks systems, and in 2018, Baltimore became the first major city to ban water privatization, according to Montag.

But that hasn’t slowed the detrimental costly effects on the city’s black community. The study states that the rising water rates have disproportionately affected “black access to water systems and water rates and black homeownership.”

In 1997, the EPA established a threshold to determine the affordability of water, according to the study, specifying that water is considered “affordable when families spend no more than two to 2.5 of their median household income for water services.”

However, the study states that this scale doesn’t take into account “the toll of individual economic hardships.”

“It doesn’t really accurately measure the extent to which water is unaffordable for particular families,” Montag said at Tuesday’s press event. “Data on water is very hard to obtain. Cities don’t track the kind of data points that you would need, and so this really all we have right now.”

Nonetheless, the study illustrates “clear connection between race, water affordability, and homeownership” and its impact on Baltimore’s black population.

The study estimates that water bills in 2019 will exceed 2% of black median income in 118 of 200 the city’s census tracts, where 65% of black Baltimoreans live. By 2020, residents living in 131 census tracts will be expected to pay water bills exceeding 2% of black median income, according to the study.

“If you really think about that and boil it down to numbers, that’s a staggering amount of money to have to pay toward water services,” Montag said.

The study also estimates that the average annual water bill will increase to $1,115 by 2022, “more than triple the average bill of $350 in 2010,” citing a 2017 study commissioned by Food and Water Watch.

Those who fail to pay skyrocketing water bills could face dire consequences – including service disconnections and loss of freedom, according to the study. Until recently, Baltimore residents could also lose their homes from failure to pay water bills — until April 2019, when the state banned Baltimore from placing liens against homes, churches and other properties over unpaid water bills. The bill goes into effect July 1, 2019.

“The only way to get rid of structural, racial inequity is through policy. We know that these things were created through policy, and only through policy will we rid Baltimore of these deep-rooted racial inequities,” Scott said.

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