Gov. Pritzker announces a $42 million effort to help Illinois residents with water debt

Pritzker stands at a church podium
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker talks about the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program during a press conference Tuesday at the Proviso Baptist Church in west suburban Maywood. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ
Pritzker stands at a church podium
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker talks about the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program during a press conference Tuesday at the Proviso Baptist Church in west suburban Maywood. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ

Gov. Pritzker announces a $42 million effort to help Illinois residents with water debt

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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced a new water assistance program for homeowners who can’t afford their water and sewer bills.

The Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) helps low-income homeowners who’ve fallen behind on their water bills and are facing water shutoff or have more than $250 in water debt. To qualify, homeowners, regardless of immigration status, must meet federal poverty guidelines. Applications are accepted through Aug. 31, 2023 or until funding runs out.

Pritzker said he’s allocated $42 million to fund the program.

“While the need is still great, I’m very proud that Illinois is a national leader in helping people stay in their homes during this health emergency,” Pritzker said Tuesday during a press conference in Maywood. “Residents deserve the dignity and the safety that comes from having a roof over their heads with the lights on and the water running.”

The new water billing assistance program builds on $327 million in emergency assistance launched earlier this year for low-income families facing difficulty with paying their utility bill and other essential household bills, according to the state.

“Equity has been right at the center of all of these efforts so that more low-income families, including those that are undocumented, can access this critical aid,” Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton said at Tuesday’s presss conference. She noted that the state has helped prevent utility shut-offs in 112,000 households and helped reduce utility bills by more than $115 million.

“We have all gone through so much since March of 2020, but together we have endured. Together we are rising,” Stratton added. “We’ve got this, and we will continue working together to get to the other side. But we have to make sure that there’s room for everyone on this road to recovery.”

Stratton said anyone needing help should visit helpillinoisfamilies.com or call the office of community assistance at 877-411-9276.

Anne Evens, CEO of the nonprofit Elevate, welcomed Pritzker’s program. Elevate has been helping Chicagoans get their water reconnected by partnering with the city.

“The new water billing assistance program announced by Gov. Pritzker is a much-needed resource, and it comes at the right time to give residents facing water shutoffs a lifeline,” Evens said. “Water bills negatively impact generational wealth in BIPOC communities in the long run and present an ever-present source of anxiety and stress in the short term. It will take a collective effort to undo past problems and change the way the system works in the future.”

Last month, a WBEZ investigation found that tens of thousands of Chicago homeowners have been unable to keep up with the city’s rising cost of water and racked up more than $421 million in delinquent water bills. The investigation also outlined the city’s punitive debt collection system that often moved delinquent water bills into the hands of private debt collectors adding hundreds of dollars in fees in the process. In addition, the debt collectors have used aggressive methods — including wage garnishment and administrative hearing judgements — to recover millions of dollars from Chicago homeowners who couldn’t pay their water bills.

“At this time, I think that’s a very concerning way to deal with people who have been challenged with COVID-19,” Pritzker said at the press conference. “We’re again, we just opened this program, it’s the beginning of our ability to help people with utility shutoffs related to water.”

He said more help is needed.

“I encourage at every level, the county level, the city level, and all over the state, not just the city of Chicago, for people to, for those governments to step up and make sure that people have the ability either to pay their bills or that there is some reprieve for them in their helping to find them the ability to pay their bills.”

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