Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed to keep water flowing in the homes of Chicagoans — even if they can’t afford it.
“We are going to end water shut-offs for residents facing significant financial hardships,” Lightfoot said during her state of the city address on Thursday. “Because water is a basic human right.”
Lightfoot made the same promise right before she was inaugurated. But her administration has not provided any details about how the city will handle this temporary moratorium.
Water rights advocates in Chicago said they’ve tried to meet with the mayor to tackle this issue but haven’t been able to. They say it’s important for the administration to be transparent with this process and provide written guidance.
“I think it’s extremely important to have policies in writing that are meeting the needs of the community,” said Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward. “It’s one thing to say no more water shutoffs, but ... the devil is in the details. We don’t really know what the policy, ultimately, is going to look like and who’s going to benefit from it.”
Virginia Miller, operations manager of the Midwest Workers Association, which advocates for low-wage workers on Chicago's West Side, said she’s happy to see Lightfoot committed to the issue but said Chicagoans need more.
“The bottom line is not having shutoffs is great but our members immediately say, ‘what about the bills?’ Because the rates are still are unaffordable for low income workers and the water department’s fees and interest on bills when low-income workers can’t pay on time make water even more unaffordable,” Miller said.
“Our administration is still working with the Department of Water Management to review policies and practices to address the cost burden of water bills on low-income Chicagoans. We will keep all stakeholders updated with any developments,” said Hali Levandoski, a spokeswoman with the mayor’s office, in a written statement.
Since May, on multiple occasions, WBEZ has sought interviews with officials in Lightfoot’s administration and the Chicago Department of Water Management without success.
The urgency to end water shutoffs in the city intensified earlier this year following a WBEZ and American Public Media investigation. The investigation found that the cost of water in Chicago tripled over the last decade — the fastest increase among six Great Lakes cities included in the investigation. The other cities were Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Duluth and Milwaukee.
In 2007, the cost of water in Chicago was $178, on average, for a year for a family of four. By 2018, that cost, on average, had risen to $576.
The increased rate hit poor Chicagoans hard. Chicago’s water department has sent over 150,000 water shutoff notices since 2007. And those shutoffs were disproportionately concentrated in low-income, mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods.
In fact, nearly 40% of all the shutoffs between 2007 and 2018 were concentrated in just five of the city’s poorest ZIP codes.
Many local organizations have been working all summer to tackle this issue. Food & Water Action, Action Now and the Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, or SOUL, hosted a series of teach-ins around the city to talk with residents about the rising cost of water and shutoffs.
These groups have used WBEZ’s reporting to gather support from other local organizations and to advocate for the proposed Water-for-All ordinance, which was introduced by Ald. Ramirez-Rosa. The measure would help families earning less than the federal poverty level for a family of four and introduce a different rate for commercial and industrial uses.
Jenya Polozova, regional organizer with Food & Water Action, said she’s concerned with the lack of transparency from the water department.
“We’ve talked with a number of residents who are getting exorbitant water bills and receive little to no guidance from the water department on why their rates have jumped so rapidly,” Polozova said. “I’ve heard people list water bills costing them anywhere from $900 to $2,000 for a few months of service without explanation.”
Miller agrees. She said the water department is unwilling to negotiate with low-income workers.
“We’ve had to send delegations of advocates with members to the water department offices and they don’t want us to do that. It’s been a fight every step of the way,” she said.
Polozova said the city also has to be forthcoming with how water rates are calculated. She said she’s still hoping to meet with Lightfoot and the water department.
Ramirez-Rosa said residents come to him with expensive water bills that they can’t afford, but he doesn’t know if telling them not to pay those bills is good advice. He said Lightfoot needs to do more than just make a public statement. Without proper written guidance, Ramirez-Rosa said he can’t help his constituents.
In Detroit, the city stopped issuing water shutoffs last month following pressure from community leaders. However, Detroit has since resumed issuing those notices but at a higher rate than it did previously, according to Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of We the People of Detroit and a prominent water rights activist in that city.
And that’s what local advocates are afraid might happen here in Chicago.
Miller said elected officials still have to deal with the fact that water in Chicago is too expensive and many working class people can’t afford it. She also said residents worry about lead in their water — a priority for them.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.