Saturday, 25 April 2015 00:00

Baltimore, Detroit threaten thousands with water shut-off

Written by Daniel Dale | Toronto Star

A drought has forced Californians to ask themselves how much water their lawns and gardens truly need.

A money shortage has Baltimore and Detroit pondering a different water question: whether the poor are entitled to any at all.

Both cities are among America’s poorest. Both have hiked water rates sharply—42 per cent over three years in Baltimore. But both are now cracking down on households with unpaid bills, issuing public threats to turn off the taps on tens of thousands of people.

They are proceeding despite a scolding from the United Nations, which called Detroit’s mass shut-off last year “a violation of the most basic human rights,” and an outcry from local advocates, who say bills are going unpaid only because residents don’t have the cash.

Charly Carter, executive director of the political group Maryland Working Families, said Baltimore risks turning itself into “Calcutta on the bay.”

“We don’t want this to be a tale of two cities where the poorest and the most vulnerable are living in squalor because they have no means of flushing their waste and no means of cleaning themselves. It’s a humanitarian nightmare waiting to happen,” Carter said.

Baltimore is giving residents just 10 days notice before cutting service. Julie Gouldener, an organizer for Food and Water Watch, said the advocacy group has spoken to parents “really scared” they will lose not only their water but their children.

“If they’re not able to wash or bathe their kids or flush their toilets, in low-income areas, if a social worker gets called and sees those conditions — lack of running water is a major red flag for a social worker to declare a home unfit,” Gouldener said.

In downtown Baltimore on Tuesday, door-to-door marketer Sierra Pervine called the crackdown “absolutely crazy.” Hotel concierge Rosemary Connolly called it “inhumane.” But the city needs the money to fix its crumbling infrastructure, and its leaders say they are seeking simple fairness. Nonpayers force the authorities to raise water rates for everyone else.

“If you don’t pay your (gas and electric) bill, they cut you off. If you don’t pay your cable bill, they cut you off. We can’t continue to allow people to not pay their water bills,” city council president Jack Young told the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore has shown no sympathy for tenants whose landlords are at fault. Briana Lacey-King, a catering co-ordinator and bartender, had to do her own research to learn that the owner of her eight-unit building owes the water authority $24,000.

She works 15-hour days. On her breaks, she calls the authority for updates. She is told her apartment could go dry any day now — and that there is nothing she can do, since it is not her name on the billing account.

“When I come home today, am I going to be able to wash my hands? Am I going to be able to cook food? Or take a shower? Or flush my toilet?” she said Tuesday. “That’s all I want to know. They don’t really have any information for me.”

Toronto hardly ever shuts off water because of nonpayment. Instead, the government adds the unpaid fees to property tax bills.

Baltimore and Detroit, like other U.S. cities, have conducted shut-offs on a regular basis. Never before, though, have so many households there been threatened with the loss of water at once.

Baltimore usually cuts off 3,000 homes per year, according to Food and Water Watch. More than 20,000 homes could be sent shut-off notices in May alone. In Detroit, 28,000 homes may soon get notices. More than 30,000 lost service at least temporarily in 2014.

Both cities offer financial assistance and payment plans. But the small grants have proven inadequate, and most of the people who signed up for Detroit payment plans last year have defaulted. The city announced Tuesday that low-income residents can now get up to half of their water debt forgiven — a major concession that is little comfort to the long-term unemployed.

The Detroit crackdown has produced the kind of water charity more common to the developing world. The Detroit Water Brigade hands out free bottled water to people who have lost service. The Detroit Water Project allows international donors to cover the bills of local families.

Baltimore groups are pushing for a moratorium on shut-offs, forgiveness for tenants whose landlords are to blame, hearings for residents to plead their cases, and the adoption of an income-based billing system. The city has held firm.

Baltimore has been plagued for years by billing errors. Damian Henson, a homeowner and restaurant general manager, received a shut-off notice over a $3,700 tab he says is the result of wild and unexplained spikes.

Henson has been paying $250 to $300 per bill, not the $550 to $600 the city claims he owes, and fighting the charges. He will eventually give in, he said, if he runs out of options.

“I don’t want my service cut off,” he said. “I can’t live without water.”

Link to original article from Toronto Star

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