No one should lose their home over an unpaid water bill in Baltimore

There is so much to be outraged about these days.

Start with the city’s bumpy road to hiring a new police commissioner. Then there’s the government shutdown with no end in sight as thousands of federal employees go unpaid and many of the rest of us are inconvenienced. And you might as well throw in R. Kelly, the popular entertainer who, despite longstanding allegations of him abusing young girls, seems to be beyond the reach of the law. His sordid history was brought to us in disturbing, graphic testimony in a documentary on the Lifetime channel last week.

Let me add something else: Baltimore’s antiquated system of punishing people who have outstanding water bills by making it possible for them to lose homes and houses of worship to foreclosure. We’re talking water bills for as little as $350 or $750, depending on whether the property is occupied by the owner, with interest and fees then piled on.

Access to clean water, mind you, is recognized by the United Nations as human right. In California, too, by law “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.” But in Baltimore, water is a commodity that can be withheld from people who fall behind in paying for it, and those old bills, no matter how inaccurate they are, can lead to investors scooping up the properties in tax sales sanctioned by the city — a centuries’ old way of doing business that needs to be relegated to that infamous garbage heap of history.

While not discounting the place of incompetence in this whole water billing system — after all, billing errors are a perennial issue — Lawrence Brown, a Morgan State University professor in the School of Community Health and Policy, sees another factor. “A lot of intentionality had to go into making this system as bereft of compassion as it is,” he said after attending a briefing Monday at which State Sen. Mary Washington, Del. Nick Mosby and Councilwoman Shannon Sneed drummed up support for a state Water Taxpayer Protection Act.

All this is on the eve of the Board of Estimates meeting this week to vote on a three-year, 30 percent rate hike in water bills. Since 2000, according to Rianna Eckel, the Maryland organizer for the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, water rates have quadrupled.

Yes, the city wants people to pay their bills; but what about when the bills are in dispute? Some, like the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, cave in. As his bills mounted at the Friendship Baptist Church while he challenged their accuracy, Rev. Gwynn finally paid thousands of dollars to avoid a tax sale. Though the city has acknowledged that it miscalculated the bill, he said, he has found no relief, and the church, which has only one person on site most days, is billed for 4,900 gallons of water a week.

For years scores of people have written in desperation to Mary Washington, from her days as a member of the House of Delegates to now, as she prepares to take her new seat in the Senate and press again for her Water Taxpayer Protection Act, first introduced in 2017. As she sees it: “Mostly this system in Baltimore seems to be set up to support the economy of tax sale foreclosure — not ending economic and housing insecurity in Baltimore.”

Kimberly Armstrong has been fighting the water bill since 2014 when she began receiving what she describes as “astronomical water bills,” from $200 to $1,000 for a house she lived in alone most of the time because her daughter was away in school. She hired a plumber to repair a minor leak in a basement bathroom. After following all protocols her house went into tax sale in 2016. Her mortgage company took care of that, she said, but then she received a bill for more than $3,000. “So, I don’t know where to go, and I’m still fighting this issue to this day,” she said at the briefing Monday.

Let’s focus some outrage on Baltimore’s water policies. Go to the Board of Estimates on Wednesday morning. Contact Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who is working on finding relief. Encourage the City Council to throw its support behind the Water Taxpayer Protection Act. Contact the Baltimore delegation to make sure that they are on board, too.

Del. Mosby says Baltimore is better than this. Why not show that this legislative season?

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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