Chicagoans, can’t afford your water bills? Here’s what you need to know.

water debt resource guide
WBEZ investigations have shown how the rising cost of water has impacted Chicagoans — tens of thousands have had their water disconnected, have fallen into millions of dollars in debt and suffered legal consequences as a result. WBEZ has provided a resource guide to help Chicagoans understand their water bills and to connect them with resources. Laura Vergara / WBEZ News
water debt resource guide
WBEZ investigations have shown how the rising cost of water has impacted Chicagoans — tens of thousands have had their water disconnected, have fallen into millions of dollars in debt and suffered legal consequences as a result. WBEZ has provided a resource guide to help Chicagoans understand their water bills and to connect them with resources. Laura Vergara / WBEZ News

Chicagoans, can’t afford your water bills? Here’s what you need to know.

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Water has become unaffordable for many Chicagoans.

Over the last four years, I’ve been reporting on how the rising cost of water has impacted Chicagoans — tens of thousands have had their water disconnected, have fallen into millions of dollars in debt and suffered legal consequences as a result.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot stopped shutting off water to Chicagoans in 2019. That moratorium remains in effect, but there could be thousands of Chicagoans who’ve been living without water during the pandemic. If you’re living without water, call 311. If the water has been off for more than 30 days, call 312-744-4426. If the water has been off for a long time, there may be water quality and plumbing infrastructure issues that might require additional help. Elevate Chicago has been working with the city to help residents.

I wrote this guide to help you understand your water bill and connect you with resources. Below are answers to some common questions people have about their water bills.

UPDATE: Watch the video of our virtual water debt workshop on WBEZ’s YouTube page.

What is a metered or unmetered account?

Properties with a meter are billed based on the number of gallons used per billing cycle. Water use in non-metered properties is estimated based on building size, lot size and the number of water fixtures.

A 2022 report by Elevate Chicago shows residents without a water meter pay significantly more for their water bill than customers with meters — in 2019, on average, non-metered customers paid $500 more than metered customers.

How do I know how much water I’m being charged?

Look at the back of your water bill.

Metered properties should look like this:

a metered water bill
WBEZ

Unmetered properties should look like this:

an unmetered water bill
WBEZ

How do I know if I have a water leak?

If you notice a significant increase in your water bill, report the potential leak to the city by calling 311. Remember that you are responsible for the cost to fix water leaks between your home and the city’s water main.

I want to install a water meter. What do I need to do?

It’s become difficult and expensive to get a water meter. In 2019, the city suspended the MeterSave program, following a Chicago Tribune investigation that found elevated levels of lead in the water of homes with new meters. Under the program, the city installed water meters for free.

Property owners who want to install a meter must replace their water service line. The owner has to pay and the city recommends starting your research at leadsafechicago.org.

The Equity Lead Service Line program can cover the replacement cost for residents who qualify.

The city can waive some permit fees if you don’t qualify for the Equity Lead Service line program.

What is the sewer charge?

The sewer charge you see on your bill is 100 percent of the water rate.

What is the garbage fee?

In 2016, the city began charging garbage hauling fees to residents in single-family homes and other residential properties with up to four units. The fees are based on the number of dwelling units.

water bill garbage fee
WBEZ News
What is the water-sewer tax?

In 2017, the Chicago City Council approved former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal for a water-sewer tax, specifically, to help pay off the city’s unfunded employee pension debt.

The tax is based on water consumption for metered properties and estimated use for unmetered properties.

What if I can’t afford my water bill?

The Utility Billing Relief (UBR) program offers a 50% reduction for water and sewer charges, as well as the water-sewer tax. UBR prevents shutoffs, penalties and the involvement of private debt collectors. The program also offers debt forgiveness to residents who successfully complete UBR for one year.

What is the income eligibility requirement for the Utility Billing Relief program?

Utility Billing Relief program income eligibility
WBEZ News
Where can I apply for the UBR program?

You can apply here or call (312) 744-4426

CEDA is partnering with the city to implement the program. Call

I don’t live in Chicago. Is there a Cook County program to help me with my water bill?

The Cook County Low-income Household Water Assistance Program

This program provides a one-time grant of up to $1,500 to prevent water shutoffs and to pay for past-due bills and fees. It’s available for renters and homeowners. To apply for the program or to learn more, call 1 (800) 571-2332 or visit www.cedaorg.net

Does the state offer any assistance with water bills?

The Illinois Low Income Household Water Assistance Program

This program was started by Gov. JB Pritzker a month following WBEZ’s water debt investigation. This is a limited, one-time assistance program for homeowners and renters facing water disconnection or with a past due water and sewer bill of more than $250. This money is available through August 31, 2023.

Illinois water debt assistance
WBEZ News
I am a senior. Do I qualify for any discounts?

The city doesn’t have a water discount. But seniors are exempt from paying the sewer fee, the water-sewer tax and penalties. There’s also a senior garbage fee discount that reduces the garbage fee by 50%.

To qualify, the homeowner must be 65 years or older. To apply, contact the finance department.

What happens if I don’t pay my water bill?

Unpaid water bills turn into a code violation. Those violations go to the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings, which was created more than 20 years ago to expedite code enforcement violations by keeping the violation out of the county circuit court. Over the last decade, the department has adjudicated more than 100,000 cases involving unpaid water bills.

The finance department said “bad debt is not referred to outside law firms for collection until a year.”

What happens if I missed my hearing?

Administrative law judges issued default judgments in cases where homeowners did not show up to their hearings. Debt collectors then pursue those homeowners to get payments for the past due amounts. The city outsourced its debt collection to eight private law firms that keep 25% of the water debt they recover on behalf of the city.

Can I fight the default judgment?

If you missed your hearing, you have 21 days to file a motion to set aside the default judgment. There’s no additional charge to file the motion.

Since the law firms are paid on contingency, enforcement is aggressive. In some cases, they have collected the debt directly from the paychecks of delinquent customers.

At one time, the city issued statutory liens against properties with delinquent water bills. That practice was stopped in 2012, the city said.

How can I check if my house has a statutory lien?

If you’ve had water debt in the past, I recommend checking county records for potential liens.

To search county records, You’ll need your property index number or PIN. Don’t have it? Start here to find the PIN using your address.

Cook County Clerk
WBEZ News

Once you have the PIN, type it here to search for potential statutory liens.

Cook County Clerk's office
WBEZ News

The statutory lien is usually filed by the city’s Department of Water Management. The lien has the amount owed and the year it was filed.

Cook County Clerk's office 2
WBEZ News

How do I release the statutory lien?

To release the statutory lien, you must pay the amount owed and penalties in full and request a full payment certificate. Then file that form with the Cook County Clerk’s office.

How do I dispute my water bill? What documentation do I need?

To dispute your water bill, call 312-744-4426 or email utilitybill@cityofchicago.org.

Make sure you have documentation to back up your claim, including billing history or any other records from the water department.

What can I do to stop billing a vacant unmetered property?

You must register the property as vacant with the city of Chicago. Fees can be between $250 to $500. To learn more about the process and apply, visit https://ipiweb.cityofchicago.org/vbr/.

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