For Immediate Release
Today, Mayor Brandon Scott and the Department of Public Works (DPW) announced the launch of the Water for All program, the comprehensive water affordability program established in the Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA) that was passed in November 2019.
With this launch, Baltimore has become the second city in the country after Philadelphia to establish a percentage-of-income water affordability program. Baltimore’s program will cap water and sewer bills for low-income households at three percent of household income – the international standard for water affordability. The program will be available to all households with an annual income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Rianna Eckel, Baltimore water organizer with Food & Water Watch and convener of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, which has been organizing for affordable and accountable water billing since 2016 said:
“The launch of the Water for All program is a major step toward water justice for our city and will help many Baltimoreans achieve truly affordable water service. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, and we applaud the work of Mayor Brandon Scott and the Department of Public works to get us here.”
In a critical change, the Water for All program is the first water affordability program in the city that is accessible to renters, who make up 53% of Baltimore residents. The Baltimore Right to Water Coalition hopes to work with Mayor Scott’s administration to address a lingering issue involving the tax treatment of assistance for tenants in multifamily, master-metered units. One potential solution involves use of federal aid dollars. The City has $641 million in ARPA funding and advocates estimate that 0.5 percent of this funding could seed a fund to provide affordability assistance for these tenants for several years, without taxing the benefit as the current program could.
“For years, Baltimore renters have largely been denied affordability assistance, account access, and the ability to appeal water bills, despite the fact that many were responsible for paying them,” said Molly Amster, Maryland Policy Director & Baltimore Director for Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). “That lack of support and due process led some renters to be evicted for non-payment of water bills. The implementation of the Water for All program will put an end to that injustice.”
Research from utility affordability expert Roger Colton has shown that percentage-of-income affordability programs work for both people and the utility. These programs have been used in the gas and electricity sectors for decades. Based on research from these sectors and Philadelphia, the program will support the fiscal health of DPW. With affordable bills, a higher percentage of people will consistently pay their bills, overall covering the cost of the program and potentially generating more revenue for the utility.
“This program is a win-win for residents of Baltimore City and the Department. Affordable bills means more people can pay their bills when they are struggling,” said Amy P. Hennen, Director of Advocacy and Financial Stabilization at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). “MVLS works with clients everyday who face hard choices about what bills to pay and this program is an important step to ensuring the health and stability of our communities.”.
As Council President, Mayor Scott led the City Council to unanimously pass the WAEA, and the legislation was signed into law in January 2020. The program was slated to go into effect originally in July 2020, but it has suffered several delays. In a major setback, former Mayor Jack Young issued an executive order in July 2020 to delay the legislation’s implementation during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Residents have been unable to enroll in any water assistance since July 2021, when BH2O Assists stopped accepting new applicants. The coalition hopes that the Department will provide backdated assistance to households who expressed interest in the Water for All program over the past seven months.
The Water for All affordability program is one half of the WAEA law, and the other half is a new independent Office of the Customer Advocate. The Baltimore Right to Water Coalition eagerly awaits the hiring of the Customer Advocate, whose job is to promote fairness for water customers, to improve the dispute resolution process, and to provide greater accountability to the public.
“An independent Customer Advocate is a crucial piece of the puzzle,” said Jaime Alison Lee, Associate Professor and Director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “Achieving water justice in Baltimore continues to be a journey, and we are hopeful that with every next step of the rollout of this law, we will get a little bit closer.”
Contact: Phoebe Galt, [email protected]