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NAACP LDF Study Says Baltimoreans Who Face Most Impact Of Rising Water Bills Are Predominantly Black

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

Baltimore residents who face the most severe impacts of increasing water bills are disproportionately black, according to a new study released Tuesday.

The report, conducted by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is independent from the NAACP, comes as the Baltimore City Council considers the Water Accountability & Equity Act.

It found that 65 percent of the black population in Baltimore currently lives in neighborhoods where families spend more than 2 percent of their incomes on water bills.

“That’s generally the affordability threshold,” said Coty Montag, the senior deputy director of litigation for LDF.

“It’s quite staggering to think about how many families are really affected by this,” Montag said. “In some neighborhoods families must spend up to eight percent of their incomes on water services. That's happening right now. And the problem is going to worsen next year in 2020, when even more families and predominately black neighborhoods will be affected.”

Water bills are set to increase by 30 percent over the next three years. Baltimore’s Board of Estimates voted 3-to-2 for the measure in January. Revenue will go toward needed improvements throughout Baltimore’s aging water and sewer system.

Mayor Jack Young, who was then City Council President, and Comptroller Joan Pratt voted against the measure but lost to then-Mayor Catherine Pugh administration figures on the board, including Pugh, city solicitor Andre Davis and Department of Public Works director Rudy Chow.

Baltimore’s water bills are already rising faster than the national average. From 2010 to 2018, the city’s water bills grew by 127 percent.

The report also found that water bills will exceed two percent of the median income of black residents in 118 of 200 Baltimore census tracts -- and that in recent years, the Department of Public Works has been more aggressive about shutting off water for residents with delinquent water and sewer bills.

“What many of us have experienced is true: Black Baltimoreans are disproportionately impacted by rising water rates, water shut-offs and water tax lien sales,” said Reverend Alvin Gwynn, the president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore City.

Gwynn said his own church, Leadenhall Baptist in South Baltimore, had been listed for tax sale.

“We got a water bill that was like 80, 90 percent higher than normal,” he said.

He said he went to a DPW hearing, and heard, “ ‘Oh, we made a great mistake. This isn't right. There's no way you're using a thousand some gallons of water per day. That's impossible. We're going to make a note and we're going to correct it and don't pay it.’ ”

When the church received its next bill, it was double the errant amount, Gwynn said. But under current department protocol, he had to wait another 12 months to have another public works hearing.

“Next thing we know we're on the tax sale list for nonpayment of a water bill,” he said. “Of course, we contested that vehemently. And then we did prevail.”

Gwynn said he knows of at least 26 other churches that have ended up on tax sale lists for water bills.   

Until former mayor Pugh ordered city agencies to stop placing tax sales on homes with unpaid water bills in December 2017, Baltimore placed liens on homes for those bills as low as $350.

DPW introduced Baltimore H20 Assists, a financial assitance program to reduce water bills for low-income families, last month. The program officially begins on July 1st. 

"DPW’s figures show that a family of three enrolled in the BH2O Assists program will pay just 1.6 percent of the median household income toward water (including sewer and stormwater) bills," said a DPW news release on Tuesday. "That is well below the NAACP’s recommendation."

The Water Accountability & Equity Act, created one month before the Board of Estimates vote to increase water bills, aims to increase affordability of basic water for low-income residents. It is sponsored by Mayor Young, who was then Council President, and every other council member.

The bill would create a discount program to supplement other existing financial assistance programs, an Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals, and a Committee for Office Oversight. It is currently in committee, under Taxation, Finance and Economic Development.

“We're very heartened to see this City Council bill,” said Montag, of the Legal Defense Fund. “LDF fully supports the bill.”

She noted her concern that the bill “may not provide relief in terms of billing discounts or decreases for every day, average families, who may be struggling to pay their water bills also.”

The report comes as the city is unable to send residents their water bills because of the ransomware attack on municipal computer systems.

Chow has said that the city has records of water bills as recent as early May, and that water meters are still running accurately despite the ransomware attacks.

To pay water bills during the offline period, customers can either make an estimated payment in person at the Abel Wolman Municipal Building, or wait to receive a bill that will cover the offline period once digital payments are restored.

This article has been updated to reflect that the NAACP LDF is independent from the NAACP. 

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.