This story was reported in collaboration with American Public Media
Over the past decade, the cost of water in Chicago has tripled – the fastest rate of increase among six Great Lakes cities examined by WBEZ and American Public Media in a joint investigation of rising water costs in the region.
Chicago’s most dramatic increases in water and sewer costs, which the city bills together, occurred during the tenure of outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who twice proposed increases to the city’s water and sewer rates. The Chicago City Council approved both proposals.
The first hike began in 2011 and was phased in over several years. Then in 2016, Emanuel announced an additional tax to water and sewer bills, to be spread out over four years, in an effort to generate money for the city’s ailing pension fund for municipal workers.
The sharp spikes in water costs have hit poor families the hardest. For many residents, water bills skyrocketed faster than they could keep up. There is more than $210 million in unpaid water bills. The Chicago Department of Water Management has shut off water service to tens of thousands forcing them to live for a time without water--a necessity some call a basic human right.
Some have scrambled to find the money needed to restore water service. They’ve skipped paying other household bills, borrowed money from friends and family and turned to predatory lenders, while thousands have restored water services illegally.
Chicago gets its water from Lake Michigan. And despite living adjacent to the lake, Chicagoans now pay more for their water than the residents of Phoenix, a city located in an Arizona desert that pipes in water from sources as far as 300 miles away.
Our investigation revealed that:
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, called the nation’s least-sustainable city by New York University sociologist Andrew Ross, paid about $399.
Chicago’s water department has sent over 150,000 water shutoff notices since 2007.
Water shutoffs are disproportionately concentrated in low-income, mostly black and mostly Latino neighborhoods in Chicago. 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.
Illegal reconnections of water outpaced legal reconnections in six of the 12 years analyzed. During that span, 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.
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.
A college graduate and a homeowner, Rev. Falicia Campbell never imagined she would be living without water. She found herself in this situation after she inherited her house from her parents and later received a $5,000 water bill. The city’s water department offered her a payment plan, but it required a $1,700 deposit. At the time, she didn’t have it. So the city shut off her water.
Campbell was so ashamed, she kept it a secret from her adult children, friends and her congregation. Still, at 62 and partially blind, Campbell needed help.
She told one trusted friend who drove her to the store to buy 40 to 50 gallons of water every week. Campbell is one of tens of thousands of Chicagoans who can’t afford to pay for their water bill.
Without running water, every part of her daily life became a struggle.
Each morning, before going to her church to run the food pantry, she poured gallons of bottled water into a pot to heat up on top of the stove. She then carried the warm water up the steep stairs to the second floor and poured it into the bathtub.
She made the trip multiple times until she had enough water to take a bath. After her bath. She cleans obsessively. She feared that her house might smell without running water. By the time she was on her way to her church she was already exhausted.
“I just said, ‘Oh God, whatever I did, forgive me,’” Campbell said. “This was a lesson.”
It took months for Campbell to get the deposit she needed to get her water reconnected. She relied on a loan from her pastor.
“There's an old saying: ‘You never miss your water until the well runs dry.’ And I found out that it's very difficult to get around without water,” she said.
Desperate for water
Once the water is shut off, it can be expensive to reconnect it. There’s a $40 fee to re-install water services, and residents are also charged a 1.25 percent penalty of the total amount owed. In addition, residents have to come up with half of the money owed in order to enroll in a payment plan or 25 percent, if the person can prove they’re disabled or elderly.
As a result, many can’t even afford to get on a payment plan. Illegal restorations of water outpaced legal restorations in the majority of years analyzed. These kinds of illegal restorations were concentrated in poor neighborhoods and each offense carries a $500 penalty.
One resident in the Little Village neighborhood, a poor, largely immigrant community on the city’s Southwest Side, said she’s been forced to illegally reconnect her water many times because her landlord doesn’t pay the water bill. For many apartment buildings in Chicago, water service is provided for the entire building and the landlord or a property manager is responsible for the bill. Presumably, landlords include the cost of water in the rent.
“In the nine years that we’ve lived here, they’ve turned off the water at least three times. They tried [a fourth time], but one was a failed attempt. They said they were going to come back, but they never came back,” she said.
“That was good for me.”
The married, mother of two asked WBEZ not to disclose her name because she’s afraid of being evicted. The first time the water department shut off her water, her husband came home and turned it back on illegally.
She said her family felt like they had no other option.
“We had just paid our rent. Where are we going to with no water?
Poor financial decisions
Domitila Valerio is a single mother of two who also lives in Little Village. She saw a dramatic increase in her family’s water bill and has had to make difficult financial decisions to keep the water on.
“[The water costs] really affected me,” Valerio said in Spanish.“I work and earn minimum wage. I had to stop buying things for my children in order to keep the water on.” The minimum wage in Chicago is currently $12 an hour.
Valerio grabbed several water bills and carefully reviewed them. She said she doesn’t understand the different charges. The only thing she understands is that her water bill increased dramatically in one year, and she doesn’t know why. She pulls out a bill from 2017 that lists a total for water and sewer service of $88. By 2018, her bill total increased to $716.
Valerio moved to Chicago from Mexico more than 15 years ago. She met the father of her two children here. They bought a house together. When he moved out, she kept the property. She pays the mortgage, property taxes and other bills. It’s a small bungalow house in heart of Little Village.
She lives in the basement with her children and rents the first floor. She works a lot of hours to provide for her children, and she loves her home. She has flowers, tomatoes and chili peppers in the backyard. Valerio has a shrine in her living room with several Catholic saints and a few little Buddhas that she said are for good luck.
Valerio works at a temporary agency. She was working six days per week for 12 hours a day. But when the bill escalated to over $700, she realized she couldn’t afford to pay for it. She went to a local adult education organization seeking help. She didn’t speak English and wanted to find someone who could call and ask why the bill was so high.
The water department said they would send an employee to check for leaks that could explain the increase. High water bills are often the result of leaking pipes. Valerio said she lost a day of work waiting for the employee and was disappointed when the employee refused to check for leaks inside her house. At that point, she decided to get on the payment plan because she couldn’t allow the water to be disconnected since she has a tenant living on the first floor.
With no family in Chicago, no savings nor an established line of credit, Valerio said her only option was to get a $600 loan from a high-interest loan company for borrowers with bad or no credit. She used that money to pay for her bills, including water.
Cities, like Chicago, need to change their pricing structure so poor families can afford water, said Manuel Teodoro, associate professor at Texas A&M University. Teodoro is advocating switching to a new formula he’s researched that better reflects whether families can afford to pay for water: in terms of hours of labor at minimum wage.
“People are looking at the wrong metrics,” he said. “They're coming up with the wrong answers and they're not measuring something that reflects the lived experience of a household struggling to make ends meet.”
Teodoro, whose research was used by officials in Phoenix to restructure water rates, said water affordability should be a vital mission of every utility company. “If customers can't afford the service then the basic mission of the organization is failing.” he said. “I fear that in a lot of cases for low-income households they're paying either with … the economic opportunities that they're missing or they're paying with their health because they can't afford the basic levels of service that they need.”
In Chicago, there’s been one attempt at helping poor residents keep up with the rising cost of water. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35) introduced the “Water for All” ordinance in 2017. The ordinance is aimed at reducing water and sewer rates for low-income residents. He said residents who earn less than the federal poverty level would get a break.
Ramirez-Rosa said he introduced the ordinance after he noticed many of the residents of his northwest side ward came into his office telling him they could no longer afford their water bills. He said he would get revenue from industrial and businesses.
“We’re asking those who have the most means to pay more than those who have the least means to pay,” he said.
The ordinance goes a step further and shields the Chicago Water and sewer system from privatization by requiring approval of two-thirds of Chicago’s voters.
But the ordinance hasn’t gathered much momentum. It has not moved out of the City Council’s Committee for Rules and Ethics in two years.
Even after Campbell was able to get her water restored, her financial situation isn’t getting any better. She’s enrolled in a payment plan of$121 a month. If she doesn’t fall behind, Campbell may be able to pay off her debt by September 2021.
Some residents interviewed for this story said the water department wouldn’t provide answers to questions about why their bills had increased so fast or about more flexible terms for payment plans.
We also couldn’t get many answers. The water department declined multiple request for interviews. The department has provided information about the rate increases and the rationale behind them, as well as details about the department’s policy to refrain from shutting off water to customers with a documented medical need for water.
“Even with these rate increases, Chicago’s water rate still remains well below the rate of surrounding areas,” Chicago Department of Water Management spokeswoman Megan Vidis wrote in an email.
Emanuel's water legacy
With the exception of one year, Chicagoans have seen water and sewer rates increase every year since Mayor Emanuel took office in 2011.
Emanuel attributed the first rate hike to plans to fund infrastructure projects.
"We can replace 100 percent of our century old water pipes--about 900 miles--re-line or replace more than half of our century-old sewer lines’ 750 miles," Emanuel said in 2011.
The rate hike was phased in over several years. In 2016, after that rate-hike plan had expired, the Emanuel administration increased water and sewer rates again through a tax to be phased in over four years. The revenue from that tax would go to replenish the city’s municipal worker pension fund.
"I wanted to make sure we did not do property taxes but looked at a different revenue source again that goes consistently with making sure that people can afford it and it did not undermine what we were trying to do economically for the city," Emanuel told reporters.
Revenue from water and sewer rates increased by 68 percent from 2011 to 2019, according to figures included in the city’s annual budgets from those years.
Shannon Breymaier, Emanuel's communications director, declined requests for interviews. Instead she said the water department had answered all of our questions and that Emanuel had nothing more to add.
For some, the struggles posed by rising water costs and the mountain of ensuing debt could last for the foreseeable future. Residents of little to modest means could be trapped financially, seemingly indefinitely, by the oversized bills and accruing interest.
Englewood resident LaTunda Cobbins is trapped in an $18,800 water bill.
Cobbins was forced to live without water for a few months last summer. She said the water department required her to get on a payment plan but never explained why her bill was so high.
In 2002, the Cobbins’ home caught fire. Police labeled it arson. Cobbins moved in with other family members and later rented an apartment. But the reconstruction of their home took more than 10 years, mostly because the rebuilding was expensive. Cobbins said, once the family moved back, she received an expensive water bill, and later she got a shutoff notice.
“When I first found out how much I owed, I immediately called them to let them know we never received the water bills. They gave us the option to pay the full amount or get on a payment plan,” Cobbins said. “They told us it wasn’t their concern, they just needed to see how we were going to pay the bill.”
Cobbins said she is desperately trying to pay off the outstanding bill so that her water won’t be disconnected again. On her most recent bill, Cobbins said she was charged an additional $570 in penalties. Over the past decade, Cobbins and other residents living in her ZIP Code paid nearly $260,000 in penalties and fees, according to the analysis.
Cobbins lives in Englewood, which had the second highest number of shutoffs in the city over the last decade. Cobbins’ eternal hopeful attitude keeps her family afloat. She lives with her retired parents, who are both veterans, and two teenagers she’s raising as her own. She manages the family’s finances and despite owing such a high bill, strongly believes she’ll be able to pay it off.
“I can tell you this is stressful. We've been holding here. We've been doing the best we could day by day, little by little.”
—María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.
How we did this
Reporters from APM Reports and Great Lakes Today sent public records requests to six of the largest American cities that sit directly on the Great Lakes: Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo and Duluth.
We requested two sets of data dating back to 2007: water and sewer rates, and water shutoffs. In most cities, including Chicago, water and sewer charges are billed together. For comparison, we requested similar rates for Phoenix. The process of gathering records using public access laws was slow.
In order to compare water rates between the cities, we had to use the same format. Some cities charged by gallons of water used while others charged by cubic feet of water used. We used the cost for a family of four using 50 gallons per person daily. APM Reports chose this number based on the recommendations of academic experts. Fifty gallons per person daily provided a conservative estimate that helped us evaluate the cost of the same unit of water in different regions.
It’s important to note that water utilities bill differently: some charge based on gallons of water, others on cubic feet; some bill monthly, others quarterly; some charge just for water used, and others add fixed fees. We also used rates for 5/8 meter-sized pipes, which according to many of the cities, is the most common size for residential water customers.
We’ve grouped data by ZIP Code because it was the best way to get a standard comparison among cities given the different formats in which we were given data. Because the U.S. Census Bureau provides data for ZIP Codes, this allowed us to determine demographic patterns.
Data is available for download on the WBEZ data portal.