An unknown number of Chicago’s most vulnerable residents may be unable to wash their hands at home, a key defense against the mounting spread of the coronavirus, because their water had been shut off by the city due to unpaid bills, WBEZ and The Chicago Reporter have learned.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration acknowledged on Wednesday that they are still working to determine how many people in the city may be without water and what they can do about it.
The city established a temporary moratorium on water shut-offs in the first days of Lightfoot’s administration, but that move did not include plans to reconnect services.
“In order to ensure the health and safety of residents, the city is working in partnership with advocates and community-based organizations to develop a plan to assist residents that may not have access to water in their homes,” said Hali Levandoski, a spokesperson with the mayor’s office.
“There are serious health and safety concerns to consider when restoring residential water service, following a lengthy disconnection. Water service cannot be restored without following extensive testing protocols and multiple quality investigations, and many standard protocol measures have been made even more difficult during the COVID-19 public health crisis,” she said.
“Folks who need access right now can call 311 for help,” said Levandoski, but that would not necessarily mean water service would be restored. The city would help provide access to water in a number of other ways, she said, without specifying.
A problem a decade in the making
As the cost of water tripled in Chicago over the last decade, the city aggressively enforced collection from residents who could not afford to keep up with the rising water and sewer bills. The hike hit poor Chicagoans hard. The city sent more than 150,000 water shutoff notices between January 2007 and April 2019 due to unpaid or delinquent bills, disproportionately affecting low-income, mostly black and mostly Latino neighborhoods.
Nearly 40% of shut-offs were concentrated in just five of the city’s poorest ZIP codes on the South and West sides, as detailed in an investigation by WBEZ and American Public Media last year.
Lightfoot vowed to end the practice upon entering office and issued a moratorium on water shut-offs last May. However, advocates note that the moratorium only halted new shut-offs after Lightfoot took office, leaving residents who had their water shut off beforehand without reconnections.
“It didn’t address previously disconnected households. There’s still folks on the water system that were never turned back on,” said Juliana Pino, policy director with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).
Pino works in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, one of the city’s leading areas for water shut-offs over the last decade, the investigation found. Families without water have been either relying on neighbors, schools and gyms to wash their clothes and shower, Pino said.
Restoring water to Chicagoans should be a priority, said Samuel Dorevitch, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Chicago is facing a public health hazard already,” Dorevitch said. “But there are individuals who are not able to wash their hands, wash their face, to keep themselves clean and follow CDC recommendations about stopping the chain of coronavirus transmission. That is a public health problem for them, and it's a problem for everybody else.”
On Wednesday, Illinois reported almost 7,000 total cases of coronavirus and the state death toll climbed to 141. Public health officials are warning that the situation will worsen next week.
While an exact figure is unclear, an analysis of data obtained by WBEZ through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that there could be hundreds of Chicago households currently without water. The analysis shows that during the 10 months prior to the moratorium, the city issued shutoff notices to at least 2,700 households. Water had not been restored to any of those households during the same period, the analysis shows.
Plans for eliminating debts, but not for restoring water
Water rights advocates have been in discussions with the city about how to move forward. Their first order of business is to identify the residents who are living without water, Pino said.
“They recognize that the water department water system does not have a consistent way of tracking which accounts had been shut off and which accounts were not then reconnected because the records were kept in a couple of places,” said Pino.
LVEJO is working with other organizations that are part of the Chicago Environmental Justice Network to identify people who don’t have water and even created “turn on teams” to help the city reinstall services to residents. Pino said they want to restore water in a safe way because there could be high levels of lead in the water pipes.
In response to the soaring utility debts Chicagoans were facing, the Lightfoot administration also established a Utility Billing Relief Program that would have cut water and sewer bills in half for qualified applicants as a means of addressing the debt. After 12 months of paying a reduced rate, whatever debt remained would be forgiven.
The program was set to launch in March, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“COVID-19 really interrupted the launch of this program,” said Harold Rice, executive director of the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Inc., which was to administer the program.
But the program — and the mayor’s office — had not established what it would take for residents to have their service reconnected. The city originally planned to resume water shut-offs after the relief program was to go into effect, according to the Citizens Utility Board.
City officials said the moratorium will continue because of the pandemic and did not give an end date.
In Detroit, another city where water shut-offs have affected predominantly low-income communities of color, officials established a “Coronavirus Water Restart Plan” in early March that would use state funds to pay for reconnection for anyone living without water.
Advocates seeking to locate Chicagoans without water
Brandon Tyus, who works for Freshwater Future, a Michigan-based nonprofit helping to restore water for residents who live near the Great Lakes, said his group can’t wait for the city to identify people without water. Tyus said the group intends to find them on its own.
WBEZ shared shut-off data with Tyus, who will be using it to identify residents living without water. His organization and others are planning to send postcards to houses located in areas with high concentrations of shut-offs. They hope residents will respond.
The most shut-off notices — about 17,500 — were issued in a far South Side ZIP code that encompasses parts of the Riverdale, Roseland, Pullman and West Pullman communities. Riverdale has the lowest median household income of any community area in Chicago.
Typically, the city restores water service once residents have settled the debt or entered a payment plan. However, the data shows that many Chicago residents have taken matters into their own hands to secure water for their homes. In six of the 12 full years of data analyzed, illegal water reconnections outpaced legal reconnections. Households that restore their water illegally can be assessed a $500 penalty by the city. The ZIP codes with the highest illegal water restorations were concentrated in low-income areas, according to the analysis.
The water department charged close to $7 million in penalties and reconnection fees between 2007 and 2018. Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods were hit hardest with those penalties, too. Almost a third of those fees were issued in the city’s 10 poorest ZIP codes.
The urgency around universal access to water has led to action in multiple Midwestern states. On Tuesday, Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency issued an order that would halt shut-offs statewide and mandate reconnections for inhabited households.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order that would halt shut-offs, force public utilities to reconnect water service unless there were safety concerns and require they collect and maintain data on the “status of water service within their respective service areas.”
Some advocates said Illinois should follow those states.
“It is the time to establish a basic right to water in the city of Chicago and a comprehensive water affordability plan in the state of Illinois,” said Rachel Havrelock, associate professor at UIC and director of the Freshwater Lab, a humanities-based initiative focused on water rights and the future in Great Lakes cities.
“The governor has rightly said we are not having evictions, we’re not repossessing,” Havrelock said of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker. “We need that statement that people’s water is going to be turned on with an affordable framework.”
This story is a collaboration with The Chicago Reporter.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.
Alden Loury is the senior editor of WBEZ's Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow him @AldenLoury.
Fernando Diaz is editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter.
Josh McGhee, of The Chicago Reporter, contributed reporting for this story.