Majority-Black neighborhoods in Chicago have water debt 10 times higher than majority-white areas in the city. Some homeowners are “unable to pay off the snowballing debt,” according to a new report released Tuesday.
The report — “City of Chicago Water Affordability Analysis” — was authored by Elevate and the Metropolitan Planning Council. The two nonprofits analyzed millions of water billing account records between 2015 and 2020 provided by the City of Chicago. The report outlines how water has become unaffordable for Chicago’s poorest residents.
By April 2020, of the total amount in water debt owed to the city, half came from new charges and the other half from delinquent bills. The analysis also found that 20% of customers with delinquent water bills owe more in debt than a year’s worth of water bills. Fueled by a new water-sewer tax, the debt increased between 2017 and 2020.
“It’s a city-wide problem, no one is getting away from the fact that water rates are going up. It’s just having a more severe impact on low-income communities and also Black and Brown communities,” said Anthena Gore, strategist for Elevate’s water program. “We’re looking at another version of income gap, racial income inequality, and how it’s playing out specifically in the water sector.”
The report confirms WBEZ’s 2021 water debt investigation, which documented how for years, Chicago leaders turned the city’s water supply into a revenue stream. Tens of thousands couldn’t keep up with the rising cost of water, and Chicago homeowners racked up over $421 million dollars in water debt. Black residents are disproportionately impacted by the water debt.
Since researchers had access to individual account information, the analysis from Elevate and the Metropolitan Planning Council found that non-metered customers face more water affordability challenges than metered customers. In 2015, non-metered single family customers paid, on average, $200 more per year than metered customers. By 2019, non-metered customers were paying, on average, $500 more annually than metered customers.
“One reason for this is that, over the last five years, additional non-water charges added to the bill have contributed significantly to the overall bill increase. Also, when taxes are a function of the water and sewer charge, those with higher charges will have higher taxes,” the report said. “Non-metered accounts also appear to be paying more in annual penalty charges, again reflecting the difficulty non-metered customers may be having in paying their bill in full.”
Non-metered homes are concentrated in majority-Black and majority-Latino neighborhoods in Chicago. Properties without water meters are charged not for the actual amount of water used but for an estimated amount of water usage based on a property’s size and its number of plumbing fixtures.
“Over 54% of buildings in majority-Latinx census tracts are not metered,” Gore said. “So there’s a burden being borne by the Latinx community where they are not receiving the services needed to have their homes metered, and have those bills actually reflect what they’re using.”
The report recommends finding a safe way to reinstate the MeterSave program to help homeowners install water meters. The city suspended the program in 2019 after elevated levels of lead were found in the water of homes with the new meters. The report also recommends expanding the city’s Utility Billing Relief program, which helps eligible homeowners get a 50% discount on their water and sewer bills and qualify for debt forgiveness.