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Baltimore Mayor Young took away water bill protections when residents needed them most | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack Young" quietly used an executive order to block implementation of Water Accountability and Equity Act that would have helped residents who can't afford to pay their water bills.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack Young" quietly used an executive order to block implementation of Water Accountability and Equity Act that would have helped residents who can't afford to pay their water bills. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

There were no tweets or press events, but in early July, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young signed an executive order to indefinitely block implementation of the Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA), which would have opened a new income-based affordability program and a fairer billing dispute process to all residents.

Evidently the mayor thinks that Baltimore residents will be better off in a pandemic without these unanimously passed legislative reforms even as the city plans to raise the water rate by another 10% on October 1.

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The mayor’s resort to emergency executive powers won’t make sense to renters like one woman and her two youngsters represented by the Public Justice Center, who are struggling to hang on to their rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore. Even before the pandemic, the woman could not afford both the monthly rent and the monthly water bill. In that financial struggle, the family is far from alone as, just within her neighborhood, the pre-pandemic unemployment rate exceeded 14% and 45% of local kids were living below the poverty line.

Nor was the family alone in being denied payment assistance through the city’s “H2O Assists” discount program. As many city renters have experienced, the woman’s application for assistance was rejected by the Department of Public Works (DPW) because, even though she has to pay the water bill, she is not actually an account holder in the agency’s system. That individual, the landlord of the property, had refused to cooperate with the woman, leaving her to try the H2O Assists process on her own.

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The woman was told her request for help, even during the COVID-19 emergency, was “entirely the landlord’s decision.” Without the account holder’s go-ahead, she could not even get a copy of the water bill to know if the utility charges on her rent balance were accurate. Further, she was told that there was no way for her to dispute the agency’s decision.

This shouldn’t be happening right now. Advocates fought for years for city renters and homeowners to have access to an income-based water billing system and a formal bill dispute process through an independent customer advocate. And we won that fight. But as the CARES Act unemployment compensation ends and an unprecedented wave of evictions approaches, all of the WAEA’s crucial reforms are blocked. Not just one or two administratively challenging provisions — Mayor Young has used COVID-19 to kill the entire ordinance.

While aspects of the WAEA need more time to be thoroughly implemented, there are several key components that should have been implemented by now — and still can be — as Baltimore works to solve an unprecedented crisis. They include holding billing dispute hearings with the Environmental Control Board, providing written documentation of all payment plans and monthly notices to customers, establishing tenant access to DPW billing disputes, payment plans, and financial assistance, and halting late fees to those enrolled in payment plans and or the discount program.

The city also needs to further postpone the looming rate increase until it can demonstrate the need for a higher rate. If the mayor cannot show us the wisdom of higher bills amid a protracted economic recovery, then he should abandon the rate increase altogether.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for affordable water for all city residents crystal clear. Let’s be thankful that Baltimore City has a water shutoff moratorium in place, but also clear-eyed about the perils facing the 53% of the city’s households who rent. Even if they obtained assistance from the city’s recently closed emergency rental relief program, they remain susceptible to evictions or debt collection actions (or both) based on unpaid water bills.

The WAEA was passed so that residents could pay what they can afford, particularly when they’ve met dire straits financially. But as massive housing losses mount, the DPW’s denials of water bill assistance, without any oversight, will continue by executive preference and will have graver implications than we ever imagined during the legislative fight for reform.

Zafar Shah (shahz@publicjustice.org) is an attorney at the Public Justice Center. Matan Zeimer (matan@jufj.org) is a Baltimore community organizer for Jews United for Justice. The Public Justice Center and Jews United for Justice are members of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition.

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