Mayor Lightfoot will introduce a measure that bans privatizing Chicago’s waterworks

Chicago water department workers
Chicago Department of Water Management employees replace a meter vault in Woodlawn. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
Chicago water department workers
Chicago Department of Water Management employees replace a meter vault in Woodlawn. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News

Mayor Lightfoot will introduce a measure that bans privatizing Chicago’s waterworks

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot will introduce a new water ordinance today at a meeting of the Chicago City Council.

The ordinance seeks to ban the privatization of Chicago’s waterworks and to ban water shutoffs due to non-payment for most accounts. The ordinance also includes provisions to establish a “voluntary water meter installation program” for the owners of single-family homes and residential two-flats.

Providing water meters would likely reduce water costs for many Chicagoans. In 2019, on average, non-metered customers paid $500 more for water than metered customers, according to a 2022 report by Elevate Chicago.

In 2019, the city suspended the MeterSave program — an effort in which the city installed water meters for free — following reports of elevated lead levels in the water of homes with new meters. Currently, property owners looking to install a water meter must replace their water service line.

In January 2021, Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward, re-introduced the “Water For All” ordinance. Another 15 aldermen have signed on as co-sponsors. Community groups have also supported the proposed ordinance, which seeks to expand the Utility Billing Relief program, a city initiative that helps low-income families struggling to pay their water bills and prevents their water service from being shut off due to non-payment.

La Spata said he was disappointed that the mayor introduced an ordinance rather than working together with aldermen to pass the Water For All proposal.

“Every time community organizations and advocates do the work of building public support for an idea, do the really hard work of building an effective ordinance, we [see] this,” he said about the mayor’s approach. “We’re very close to a vote on Water For All.”

Community organizations that have been advocating for Water For All said they were disappointed that the mayor’s proposal didn’t include an expansion of the city’s Utility Billing Relief program.

“Our biggest non-negotiable is an expansion on water affordability in the city of Chicago. And that’s because, for most of us, the reason we even got into this work is because we were working with folks that had unaffordable water bills,” said Ab Weeks, organizing director at Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation. “Anything that doesn’t address those bills immediately is not enough for communities.”

Over the past decade, the cost of water in Chicago has increased dramatically. A 2019 WBEZ/American Public Media investigation found that the cost of water tripled in Chicago. The investigation also found that water shutoffs were disproportionately concentrated in the city’s majority-Black and majority-Latino neighborhoods. Since then Lightfoot implemented a temporary moratorium on water shutoffs.

Then in November 2021, another WBEZ investigation found that the rising cost of water over the past decade helped lead to more than 220,000 delinquent water accounts and a combined debt of more than $421 million.

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 judgments — to recover millions of dollars from Chicago homeowners who couldn’t afford to keep up with the rising costs.

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