Teena is shuffling water bills and pages of handwritten notes.
“My water bill for the year 2019 always ran no higher than $60. The April 14, 2020 [bill] which is $257. The one after that came in at $1,038,” said Teena. WBEZ is not fully identifying her because of the stigma of living without water.
She called the water department multiple times looking for answers.
“I called back and she said, no, you have a water leak. I said, no I don’t have a water leak. I’ve checked everywhere and the bill keeps going higher. She said you have to hire a contractor. I did call in a contractor. He said the water was leaking somewhere underground,” Teena said.
She had to replace the pipe connecting her home to the city’s water supply — an expensive fix to the leak. The 66-year-old woman couldn’t afford any of it: not the cost of replacing the pipe or the hundreds of dollars in monthly water bills. She decided to turn the water off herself to keep her water bills low. She harvested water every morning by temporarily turning the water back on so that she could bathe, use her toilet and perform other necessities.
“I had a brand new rain barrel. I started to fill that up with water, and I put it on my back porch. And that’s how I continued to have water in the house. Once I filled the rain barrel, I turned the water off so that the bill wouldn’t keep going up higher and higher,” she said.
Teena lived this way for 10 months.
While Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a moratorium on water shutoffs in 2019, some Chicagoans have been living without water during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I learned during my transition, that the city of Chicago was routinely cutting people off from water when they didn’t pay their bills,” Lighfoot said Thursday during a press conference.
In the decade before Lightfoot took office, the cost of water in Chicago had tripled, and the city’s water department sent more than 150,000 water shutoff notices to households struggling to keep up, according to a WBEZ and American Public Media investigation. And those shutoffs were disproportionately concentrated in low-income, mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods.
“We don’t do that anymore,” Lightfoot continued. “But we also need to make sure that we give those who are afraid, because they do have water debt, an opportunity to get back into service and back on a payment plan that works for them, a customized plan so that they can continue to enjoy the basic human right of water.”
It’s unclear exactly how many Chicagoans have been living without water during the pandemic. But during the 10 months prior to the moratorium, the city issued at least 2,700 shut-offs to households in areas where water service has not since been restored, according to an analysis by WBEZ and The Chicago Reporter.
“It’s hard to say,” said Andrea Cheng, who was appointed as the city’s new water commissioner this week pending approval from the Chicago City Council. “There are a number of people who choose to turn their water on without our help.”
The city has restored water service to 35 households during the pandemic, and another 25 homes are in the process of getting water restored. Cheng said reconnecting service to some households has been a challenge.
“That’s all done in coordination. We actually have weekly meetings where we have our case management, we go through each case, case by case, get updates from all parties involved, and see what the next steps are so that we don’t let anybody fall in between the cracks,” she said.
Cheng works closely with the finance department and other local nonprofits to locate residents living without water and to restore the services.
Pete Gribble, a deputy director in the city’s department of finance, said the Utilities Billing Relief (UBR) program is a powerful tool to help residents get their water back on and to afford their water bills.
Lightfoot highlighted the UBR program on Thursday.
“Since this program launched a year ago, nearly 11,000 homeowners have been enrolled in the program,” Lightfoot said. “This is how it works. [The] water and sewer bills are cut by 50%, creating much needed space in tight budgets. [Homeowners] are given the opportunity to have their entire debt completely forgiven, if they make payments for just one year.”
To qualify, homeowners must earn less than 200% of the federal poverty line. The city’s 2021 budget allocated $4 million for the program.
Gribble has also been making changes to the billing, hoping it might help homeowners.
“My favorite thing we’ve done here is that we changed the non-metered properties from billing them every six months to monthly,” he said. “It just makes it more manageable.”
But city officials faced other challenges while restoring water services. Some homeowners needed help to pay for major repairs or to restore other essential utilities. For instance, officials say they can’t restore water service to homes without heat to avoid pipes bursting during the winter.
In Teena’s case, the city partnered with Elevate to cover the cost of fixing the leak. The Chicago-based nonprofit has invested over $42,800 in emergency repairs and donated staff time to work with the city to oversee reconnections.
“For many of us, our bills are just too high and our incomes are too low,” said Elevate CEO Anne Evans, adding that working families often can’t afford home repairs.
Elevate is trying to help those families. The group works nationally to ensure that residents and communities have access to clean and affordable heat, power and water.
“Sometimes we’re running completely new water service lines. So that’s a complexity that requires pulling a permit, because you’re digging up the street in that kind of situation. We’ve even replaced entire plumbing systems,” Evans said.
Cheng said she wants Chicagoans to ask for help, if they can’t pay for their water bills or if they don’t have water service.
“I think that one of the first things is that the challenge is helping the customer understand that we’re there to help,” she said. “I think there’s a little bit of resistance and fear.”
Cheng said she wants Chicagoans living without water to call 311.
Teena spent six months looking for ways to fix her water leak. Desperate, she turned to the mayor’s office for help.
“Finally, I did call her office because I had ran into so many roadblocks,” Teena said. “Nothing was happening. Nobody was getting back to me with any information that’s going to make a difference as far as me getting water.”
Elevate helped Teena replace the pipe just in time. Her water service was reconnected in December — a day before a major snowstorm hit Chicago.
“Snow was so deep you couldn’t even see the house,” Teena said. “If I didn’t have water, I don’t know what would have happened. I probably would have had to move out.”