Alderman Once Again Seeks Legislation To Protect Some Chicagoans From Water Shutoffs

Vernal Green retrieves water from a fire hydrant in West Woodlawn
In this May 2020 file photo, Vernal Green uses a monkey wrench and a five-gallon bottle to collect water from a fire hydrant near his West Woodlawn apartment. The building where Green lived had been without water for two years. A Chicago alderman has reintroduced a measure to protect some Chicagoans from water shutoffs. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ News
Vernal Green retrieves water from a fire hydrant in West Woodlawn
In this May 2020 file photo, Vernal Green uses a monkey wrench and a five-gallon bottle to collect water from a fire hydrant near his West Woodlawn apartment. The building where Green lived had been without water for two years. A Chicago alderman has reintroduced a measure to protect some Chicagoans from water shutoffs. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ News

Alderman Once Again Seeks Legislation To Protect Some Chicagoans From Water Shutoffs

An ordinance aimed at making sure every Chicagoan has access to water was reintroduced in the Chicago City Council on Wednesday.

The Water-For-All ordinance was initially introduced by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, in 2017, but it didn’t garner enough support. When he reintroduced the ordinance on Wednesday, an additional 12 aldermen had signed on as co-sponsors. And water rights advocates said the pandemic has increased the chance of getting more support because people understand how crucial it is to have access to water during a pandemic.

“Water is life. And access to safe and affordable water is a fundamental human right,” Ramirez-Rosa said in a statement. “Our city must take steps to ensure all Chicagoans can afford water in their homes, and that Chicago’s water delivery system is safe and secure for generations to come.”

If approved, the ordinance would create a financial relief program for low-income households and ban water shutoffs, tax foreclosures and privatization of the city’s water supply. It would also require the city to create an equitable plan to address capital improvements of the water delivery system and require more transparency from the city’s water department.

“The Water-For-All ordinance is a gain for the city of Chicago on a number of fronts,” said Zhenya Polozova, regional organizer with Food & Water Watch. “It solidifies our water system as a public good, protects residents from the trauma of losing this basic human right and ensures that people are paying water rates they can actually afford. Baltimore and Philadelphia have led the way in the fight against water privatization and discriminatory water rates. It’s Chicago’s turn to fight for its residents.”

Water rights activists have been pressuring elected officials to make sure all Chicagoans have access to water during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need Water-For-All in our city to ensure our survival through this pandemic and beyond,” said Ab Weeks, organizing director at Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation.

Weeks said the Lightfoot administration has not disclosed how many Chicagoans have been living without water during the pandemic. Last April, officials with the Lightfoot administration acknowledged that they didn’t know exactly how many Chicagoans didn’t have water. Shortly after Lightfoot took office in May 2019, the city established a temporary moratorium on water shutoffs — a promise she made during her campaign. But in the months before the moratorium was issued, there were many Chicagoans who had their water disconnected.

Since then, WBEZ has documented how some Chicagoans living without water are surviving during the pandemic. And while an exact figure is unclear, a WBEZ analysis shows that there could be hundreds of Chicago households currently without water. The analysis shows that during the 10 months prior to the moratorium, the city issued shutoff notices to at least 2,700 households where the service had not since been restored.

“Safe and reliable access to water is vital to human health under any conditions and especially so in the midst of a pandemic,” noted a team of Duke University researchers, who released a working paper this month highlighting their study of COVID-19 infections and deaths in jurisdictions that employed moratoriums on evictions or on energy or water utility shutoffs.

The researchers estimated that national moratoriums on utility shutoffs from March until November of 2020 would have reduced COVID-19 infections by 8.7% and reduced COVID-19 deaths by as much as 14.8%.

“Inadequate access to reliable and clean water means that people lack access to safe water for drinking and cooking, which can cause physical illness as well as for basic hygiene measures, such as hand washing, which are critical for protecting health and preventing the spread of communicable diseases,” the researchers wrote.

The issue of water affordability has garnered support following a 2019 WBEZ and American Public Media investigation that found the cost of water in Chicago tripled over the last decade. During that time, the city issued more than 150,000 water shutoff notices, mostly in low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods. In fact, nearly 40% of the shutoffs were concentrated in just five of the city’s poorest ZIP codes.

Last summer, Lightfoot launched the Utility Billing Relief program, an effort expected to help 20,000 households struggling to pay their water bills. Individuals with debt from unpaid water bills can now apply for the program.

The UBR program reduces water and sewer bills by 50% to qualifying low-income homeowners. Residents enrolled in the program will not get their water shut off, and they won’t pay penalties.

UBR also provides a debt forgiveness program to homeowners, if they don’t fall behind on their payments for one year. Earlier this month, Lightfoot said she had allocated nearly $9 million for that debt forgiveness program, but records obtained by WBEZ show that, in the last five years alone, Chicago homeowners owed about $55.7 million.

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