Chicago’s Next Mayor Will Favor A Moratorium On Water Shutoffs | WBEZ
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Chicago’s Next Mayor Will Favor A Moratorium On Water Shutoffs

Chicago mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle called for a moratorium on water shutoffs until the policies of the Chicago Department of Water Management are reviewed.

Both candidates said they were troubled by a joint investigation by WBEZ and American Public Media that found that the city sent more than 150,000 water shutoff notices over the last decade. Water shutoffs are disproportionately concentrated in low-income, mostly black and mostly Latino neighborhoods in Chicago.

From 2007 through 2018, nearly 40 percent of the shutoffs were concentrated in just five of the city’s poorest ZIP codes on the South and West sides. The most shutoffs – about 17,500 – occurred in a far South Side ZIP code that encompasses the Riverdale, Roseland, Pullman and West Pullman communities. Riverdale has the lowest median household income of any community area in Chicago.

Both candidates said they wanted an internal audit performed on the water department.

“It’s clear that between the troubling reports around disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and the racism and sexism scandals that have broken in the water department in recent years, that that department is in need of serious scrutiny and reform,” Lightfoot said.

Preckwinkle said she supported the idea of lowering the down payment that’s now required before residents can enroll in a payment plan. Under the department’s policy, residents who’ve fallen behind on their water bills and received a shutoff notice typically have to pay half of the total amount owed before they can enroll in a payment plan and get their water restored. For those who owe thousands of dollars, that down payment is far more than they can afford.

Preckwinkle said access to water is a right, not a privilege.

“We shouldn’t be in a position where only the privileged can afford their water bills,” she said.

The shutoffs appear to be a product of rapidly rising water costs in Chicago. Between 2007 and 2018, the cost of water tripled in Chicago, according to the investigation.

The cost of water for an average family of four in Chicago was about $178 in 2007 and it increased to about $576 in 2018. By contrast, that same average family living in Phoenix, which is located in an Arizona desert and pipes in its water from more than 300 miles away, paid about $399.

Many Chicagoans who were unable to pay enough of their debt to restore water service turned to illegally connecting their water. In six of the 12 years analyzed, illegal reconnections of water outpaced legal reconnections. Residents illegally restored their water – facing a $500 penalty – nearly 62,000 times. ZIP codes with the highest illegal water restorations were more often found in low-income areas.

Residents who couldn’t afford to pay for their water bills also faced other costs. Since 2007, the water department has charged residents close to $7 million in fines and fees. The penalties were concentrated in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. More than $2 million of those penalties – or 29 percent – were issued in the city’s 10 poorest ZIP Codes.

María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.

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