For years, Baltimore residents have faced a water crisis that was growing in scope and severity. Constant 10% annual rate hikes Compounded by the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many cannot afford the most basic resource: water. But last month, our city took a big step forward in water justice, launching the Water4All accessibility program. We commend Mayor Brandon Scott for his leadership in achieving this fantastic and historic breakthrough, but there is still work to be done to ensure equitable access to water for all.
This program, the result of years of grassroots organizing efforts in our city, is a game-changer for Baltimoreans who have struggled for far too long with unaffordable water bills. The Water4All program ensures permanently affordable water bills for low-income families in our city by capping bills at internationally recognized standard for affordable water service — no more than 3% of household income. Water4All also creates a pathway out of water debt, ensuring no one is left behind. And for the first time in the city’s history, water assistance will be available to tenants, who make up nearly 53 percent of Baltimore residents. We encourage households to apply before April 1, 2022 to be eligible for backdated credits.
Water4All is not just a game-changer for low-income families in our city; it’s a win for everyone. When people have bills they can afford to pay, they pay them. And paid bills mean improvements in water infrastructure for all of us. Research shows that income-percentage programs like Baltimore’s dramatically increase collection rates. This will support the financial health of the Department of Public Works, ensuring that the agency raises the necessary funds for necessary infrastructure upgrades.
While percentage-of-income accessibility programs have been used with gas and electric utilities for decades, Baltimore is at the forefront of people-centered water solutions as the second city in the nation to create such a program for water. Our city shows that municipal water utilities everywhere can and should only provide water accessibility programs that meet the needs of households where they are and ensure equitable access to water services. for everyone.
Although the launch of the program is a huge step forward, there is still work to be done. Just as community participation was key to the design and adoption of the program, public oversight will also play a key role in managing its implementation. As things stand, an implementation issue could jeopardize some of the benefits that low-income tenants should be able to expect from this program. Currently, under the Department of Public Works plan, tenant residents behind central meters will receive pre-paid cards, with automatically loaded monthly credits to provide water accessibility assistance – a great idea. What is less great is that these residents will also have to pay taxes on this assistance.
It is fundamentally wrong that someone has to pay taxes on the money provided to make their water bill affordable. Having this aid count as income will inevitably make filing taxes much more complicated and may even cause people to exceed income thresholds for other aid programs.
These impacts could be devastating and have serious consequences for the most vulnerable people in our city, but there is a solution. Baltimore has $641 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to distribute. This federal support has been given to cities like ours to mitigate the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and can be explicitly used to help with utility bills. Additionally, the IRS has issued clear directions that direct payments of ARPA funding to households for water and other utilities will not be taxable.
By earmarking just $3 million of this federal funding – less than 1% of Baltimore’s ARPA allocation – for water affordability, we could ensure low-income tenants in Baltimore can have water service. truly affordable water without causing additional financial insecurity. Other communities from Buffalo to San Antonio and Phoenix are already using their ARPA funding for water affordability. Baltimore needs to follow suit.
The launch of Baltimore’s Water4All program is a success story in building water justice from the ground up. Baltimoreans of all stripes have come together to fight for equitable access to affordable water services that keep people safe and healthy without breaking the bank. Now it’s up to Mayor Scott to make sure our goals are executed in this program. Mayor Scott must take action to ensure that this water accessibility program truly helps, not hurts, the people who need it most, by directing ARPA funds to those who benefit from assistance with access to water.
Rianna Eckel is a Baltimore water organizer with the national environmental advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. Amy Hennen is Director of Advocacy and Financial Stabilization at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. Jaime Lee is Associate Professor and Director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Ms. Lee and Ms. Hennen are both members of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, led by Ms. Eckel.