Water rates have been skyrocketing in Baltimore and an increase in cruel collections methods have followed — thousands of people have lost running water in their homes over unpaid bills, renters have been evicted, and about 1,700 homeowners faced possible foreclosure after the city sold liens to their homes at sale since 2015.
Now, a new study by Roger Colton, the country's leading utility affordability expert and an independent consultant with Fisher, Sheehan and Colton, shows the depth of this crisis, and the dangers for the water system’s own finances.
Colton’s pro-bono analysis — “Baltimore’s Conundrum: Charging for Water/Wastewater Services that Community Residents Cannot Afford Pay” — provides a compelling case for why the city of Baltimore cannot afford to continue with “business as usual,” and must look for a new approach for water billing.
Since 2010, the typical Baltimore household’s water and sewer bill has more than doubled.
From 2010 to 2022, the typical bill is expected to more than triple, the average bill jumping from $347 to $1,115 annually.
Water bills are already unaffordable for many of our neighbors
Starting in 2015, some families began paying more than 3% of their household income for water, going over the United Nations defined threshold of affordable.
By 2019, water bills will be unaffordable for the typical household in more than half the city.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, low income families will be hit the hardest, and by 2020, low-income households could be paying more than 10 percent of their household income for their water bill.
The Department of Public Works (DPW) is asking Baltimoreans for money they simply don’t have, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Department’s losses are increasing.
The amount of money they project to never receive from ratepayers has increased almost more dramatically than the rates themselves. Since 2010, their projected losses for the water service billings jumped 154 percent and by an astonishing 1400 percent for the wastewater service billings.
One thing is clear: the current billing system isn’t working for Baltimoreans, and it’s not working for DPW either.
This shows that the city’s existing assistance programs are failing to meet the needs of Baltimoreans, and aren’t proving helpful to get customers to pay.
It’s broken, but luckily we have the solutions to fix it.
An income-based water affordability program is a concrete way to ensure that the water billing system works better for customers, and for DPW.
These programs adjust low-income families water bills down to a level they can afford, and keep them there by capping the bill as a small percentage of their income.
When people can afford their bills, they pay them. Affordability programs like these help prevent families from facing water shut offs, evictions or tax sale, and would save the DPW time and money in their collections process. It’s a win-win.
Now, the City Council just has to introduce and pass a percentage of income billing program. It is a matter of public health, equity, justice —and fiscal responsibility.