After banning privatization, Baltimore once again leads in water justice
Today, the Baltimore City Council voted unanimously to pass the Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA). Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young introduced the bill last December when he was city council president and plans to sign the bill into law. The historic legislation is a sweeping overhaul of the city’s outdated water billing system, setting up a percentage-of-income affordability program for low-income households, a customer advocate’s office with a mission of promoting fairness to customers, and a structure for appealing high bills and other problems commonly faced by customers.
“I am looking forward to signing this historic piece of water justice legislation,” said Mayor Jack Young. “I introduced this bill nearly a year ago because the percentage-of-income water affordability program and independent dispute resolution process are necessary to improve our water billing system. I am committed to ensuring their successful implementation to make our water system work better for all Baltimoreans.”
“I’m proud of the City Council and Baltimore’s water justice advocates for their hard work on the Water Accountability and Equity Act,” said City Council President Brandon Scott. “This legislation brings needed transparency and stronger accountability mechanisms to the Department of Public Works, while also protecting our most vulnerable residents. Now, the Council and I will hold DPW accountable through legislative oversight and fight to make sure water rates are fair for all of our residents, regardless of income or neighborhood.”
“Today represents what democracy in motion looks like. After almost two years from when this issue was first presented, the Water Accountability and Equity Act will be approved and will move out of the Baltimore City Council,” said City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton. “Congratulations to all of the water advocate groups that worked tirelessly during this process and never gave up hope that this day would come. The work that you did will have a positive impact on residents across this city. This is a true example of how great our city can be when we listen to the needs of our constituents, and put politics aside to affect the greater good of human beings.”
“Once again, Baltimore is a leader in this country for water justice,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer with Food & Water Action and Food & Water Watch. “After becoming the first major city to ban water privatization, we have worked together to pass legislation to make the improvements that we need to see. By passing this bill, Baltimore is showing the country that we can hold our public utilities accountable and extinguish the growing water affordability crisis across the nation. We can parlay public ownership of water service into an opportunity to pass monumental water justice legislation.”
Advocates and residents in the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition have been working day in and day out for four years to mitigate the unchecked and unaffordable water billing system in the city. After Baltimore made waves by becoming the first major city to prohibit the sale and lease of its water and sewer system, residents have proven the importance of keeping water service in public control.
“The Water Accountability and Equity goes beyond addressing individual customer concerns by injecting transparency into how DPW operates and providing a pathway to address bigger-picture, systemic issues at DPW” said Molly Amster, the Baltimore Director of Jews United For Justice. “The legislation offers forward thinking protections to help address problems before they become widespread and debilitating. The new Customer Advocate’s Office and Oversight Committee can recommend any change at DPW that is necessary to promote fairness to customers and to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.”
In 2019, water bills will exceed two percent of Black median income in 118 of 200 census tracts in Baltimore, according to NAACP Legal Defence Fund’s Water/Color. Sixty-five percent of the Black population in Baltimore lives in these tracts. Only 19 of the 118 tracts are not majority-Black.
“By creating an Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals, the Water Accountability and Equity Act would increase fairness and bring much-needed due process protections to the people of Baltimore seeking to dispute their water bills,” said Ralikh Hayes, Community Organizer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “The NAACP Legal Defense Fund fully supports this bill to address the water affordability crisis in Baltimore.”
The Water Accountability and Equity Act will discount water bills based on income. Residents making 50 percent of the poverty limit will not be charged any more than 1 percent of their income for water. Bills will also be capped at 3 percent of income for any residents who make 100 to 200 percent of the poverty level. Further, the legislation will provide a pathway out of water debt for low-income households who have already fallen behind on their water bills. Water debts will be deferred while enrolled in the Water for All program, and each on-time payment of their discounted water bill will count toward repayment of their outstanding balance.
“This legislation is a major win for everyone in Baltimore,” said Amy P. Hennen, Managing Attorney, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “Evidence shows that when low-income residents can afford to pay their water bills, they do. The WAEA will ensure low-income residents never need to choose between water and other necessities as well as give a way out of water debt. It will also ensure that DPW is able to collect more of the bills it sends out and will be more cost effective than current programs.”
The bill will also allow renters to access the water billing information for their rental property directly rather than depend on landlords to act as responsible intermediaries. Fifty-three percent of Baltimore residents are renters, and many have been systematically denied billing assistance from DPW and ways to correct erroneous water bills because their landlords are absentee or unresponsive.
“In too many cases to count, City renters have faced eviction because of excessive water bills that they either had never seen or had no way to challenge,” said Zafar Shah, Attorney at Public Justice Center. “With this legislation, Baltimore City is putting those days behind us. Renters and homeowners alike will have transparency, due process, and affordability.”
The Water Accountability and Equity Act also creates a new Office of the Customer Advocate, whose mission is to promote fairness to customers. Customers will have the right to appeal billing disputes and assistance denials to the Advocate’s Office and also to Environmental Control Board. The Customer Advocate is also charged with investigating why the water billing system in Baltimore has been so fraught with problems – from incorrectly charging poor residents egregiously large bills, to failing to charge large businesses at all – and with recommending improvements to DPW procedures and policies.
“This law is designed to be a tool to help ordinary people hold those in power accountable. I hope that this will now happen in this crucial area of government service, where ordinary people have felt helpless for so many years,” said Jaime Lee, Assistant Professor and Director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “We are looking forward to the bill being robustly implemented so that it can start having a positive impact on people’s lives.”