Baltimore, MD -- Today, the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition held a virtual press conference marking the day that the Water Accountability & Equity Act should have been fully implemented, and highlighting the failure of the Department of Public Works and Mayor Jack Young to implement most key provisions of the bill. Further, Mayor Young recently introduced a bill calling for implementation to be pushed back by a year, which would put the responsibility on the next mayoral administration and leave thousands of Baltimore residents without adequate water affordability protections in the meantime.
“The Water Accountability and Equity Act is a crucial piece of legislation,” said Council President Brandon Scott. “I understand that it's going to take time and care to implement correctly. But as we continue to battle this public health pandemic, it’s more important than ever that people get relief and a better water system as soon as possible.”
Maryland’s moratorium on evictions is set to end on July 25, which increases the already dire public health and financial pressures Baltimoreans face due to COVID-19. Before the pandemic, renters were routinely evicted for unpaid water bills. As tens of thousands of families face unemployment and now, eviction, the need to meaningfully address water access and affordability is at an all time high.
“For years, and even during this pandemic, renters have been routinely denied assistance with water bills,” said Zafar Shah, attorney at the Public Justice Center. “As of today, the denial of renters’ requests to discounts, repayment agreements, and billing dispute resolution is unambiguously illegal.”
The Water-for-All affordability program outlined in the Water Accountability would go further than the current BH2O Assists program, and is the fiscally responsible option. The program would make bills truly affordable for families by capping bills based on their income, rather than offering a flat discount like the BH2O program does. It allows renters, who make up 53% of Baltimoreans, to enroll in the program without the assistance of their landlord, a major barrier for many tenants.
The Water-for-All program also offers a pathway for households to get out of water debt, by allowing each monthly payment made through the program to also count towards their unpaid water debt. The Water-for-All program would also save the Department of Public Works money, with a fiscal note of 19 million dollars less than the BH2O Assists program over the first five years of the programs.
“The Department of Public Works is in violation of the law, and many aspects of the WAEA are nowhere near in place,” says Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer for Food & Water Action. “Despite being legally mandated, residents of Baltimore are still unable to get meaningful assistance with their water bills, and low-income Baltimoreans will not have their bills made more affordable. We are frustrated and disappointed with the failure to implement, and will continue to work with our allies on the Council to ensure that this bill is implemented as soon as possible, and that it actually changes our broken systems.”
“A decision to completely kick the can down the road is immoral and unnecessary,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore Director for Jews United for Justice. “Many of the law’s requirements can and should be implemented right now. Baltimoreans need action from our Mayor and DPW to have affordable and just water access during this pandemic — immediate implementation where possible and diligent work toward full implementation.”
The Baltimore Right to Water Coalition believes DPW could implement many of the WAEA’s provisions quickly including:
- Holding billing dispute hearings with the Environmental Control Board.
- Providing written documentation of all payment plans and monthly notices to remind customers.
- Notifying landlords and tenants of new lease requirements and tenant access to DPW billing, payment plans, and financial assistance.
- Stop charging late fees to those enrolled in payment plans and/or the discount program.