Chicago Expands Program To Help Homeowners Struggling With Unpaid Water Bills

Vernal Green uses a monkey wrench and a five-gallon bottle to collect water from a fire hydrant
Vernal Green uses a monkey wrench and a five-gallon bottle to collect water from a fire hydrant near his West Woodlawn apartment in May. On Monday, Chicago expanded it's Utility Billing Relief program to help homeowners struggling with their water bills. But the program won't help thousands of renters like Green. His apartment building has been without water for two years. Maria Zamudio / WBEZ News
Vernal Green uses a monkey wrench and a five-gallon bottle to collect water from a fire hydrant
Vernal Green uses a monkey wrench and a five-gallon bottle to collect water from a fire hydrant near his West Woodlawn apartment in May. On Monday, Chicago expanded it's Utility Billing Relief program to help homeowners struggling with their water bills. But the program won't help thousands of renters like Green. His apartment building has been without water for two years. Maria Zamudio / WBEZ News

Chicago Expands Program To Help Homeowners Struggling With Unpaid Water Bills

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched an expanded Utility Billing Relief program Monday. Homeowners struggling to pay their water bills and those with debt from unpaid water bills can now apply for the program.

A pilot version of the Utility Billing Relief (UBR) program has been operating since April. The expanded program is expected to assist about 20,000 households, but the numbers could be higher since more people have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program works in two ways to help homeowners. First, UBR reduces water and sewer bills by 50% to qualifying homeowners. Residents enrolled in the program will not get their water shut off and residents 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.

“The Chicago Utility Billing Relief Program represents our latest step in bringing long overdue financial support to residents who have struggled with their bills, forcing them to choose between paying for their water and other essentials and, in many cases, succumb to debilitating debt,” Lightfoot said. “We can no longer afford to hold back their potential or ours. Thanks to this program, Chicago’s families and communities will now have a path forward towards compliance on payments, as well as the opportunity for total debt forgiveness, helping us build a Chicago that is more equitable, more inclusive and more hopeful for generations to come.”

UBR is modeled after the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. Homeowners have to earn below 150% to 200% of the federal poverty guidelines to qualify for UBR. Only single-family homes and two-flat properties are eligible. The program was expanded to include undocumented immigrants, and UBR operates in partnership with Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County (CEDA), which operates LIHEAP.

“CEDA is leveraging more than 50 years of experience in operations, education and engagement in its partnership with the city and through its work to ensure high-quality services are continuously delivered to residents,” said Harold Rice, CEO of CEDA. “We are committed to working with the city to reduce poverty, revitalize low-income communities and empower residents now more than ever before, especially during the unprecedented times that we currently face.”

UBR was supposed to start in March, but the program was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to city officials.

Some homeowners have already enrolled in the program. In April, the city started a pilot program and by the end of June, 3,315 homeowners had enrolled. If these residents continue to pay without falling behind, the city will forgive about $2.9 million in debt.

Lourdes Rivera, energy service technician with CEDA, has been helping residents enroll in the program.

Rivera said most of the residents she’s helped are unemployed or are seniors living on a fixed income. She’s seen applications from neighborhoods in the South, West and Northwest sides of the city.

“There’s a lot of need,” she said, adding that most of the homeowners she’s helped have debt.

Rivera said she hears the desperation in their voices.

“When people have bills like that, you can hear in their voice and there’s anxiety,” Rivera said. “Some of them fall into depression. They try and see what they can do and what bills they can pay.”

Lightfoot issued a moratorium on water shutoffs as soon as she was inaugurated into office last May. In November, Lightfoot announced plans for UBR. Both announcements came after a WBEZ and American Public Media investigation last year that found the rising cost of water over the last decade hit poor Chicagoans hard.

The investigation revealed that Chicago’s water department had sent more than 150,000 water shutoff notices since 2007 — and that those shutoff notices were disproportionately concentrated in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods. In fact, nearly 40% of the shutoff notices were concentrated in five of the city’s poorest ZIP codes on the South and West sides. And those communities also bore a disproportionate amount of the $7 million in fines and fees the city charged.

“I was disturbed, like many of you were, to learn that people in our city were being deprived of water,” Lightfoot said last May when she announced the moratorium. “Water is a basic human right, and when you cut someone off from water, you’re effectively evicting them and putting them on the street.”

The investigation also found that illegal reconnections of water outpaced legal reconnections in half of the years analyzed. Thousands of residents desperate to have water in their homes illegally turned on their services, facing a possible $500 penalty.

UBR will not cover renters in Chicago. And renters like Vernal Green will not benefit. Green has been living without water for two years. He uses the fire hydrant near his West Woodlawn apartment for water. Every morning, he walks to the fire hydrant with a five-gallon bottle and a monkey wrench to get water. The fire hydrant is his only source of water, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the water department has not sent any more water shutoff notices since last May, the city has not created a plan to restore water services to the estimated thousands of households that had their water shut off before the moratorium.

It’s unclear exactly how many residents are currently living without water during the COVID-19 pandemic, but data show that during the 10 months prior to the moratorium, the city issued at least 2,700 shutoffs to households in areas where water has not been restored.

City officials said those residents without water should call 311.

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