Pulling the plug on water shut-offs

We can't let unpaid utility bills leave residents without water

FOR MANY OF us, the first thing we do in the morning is turn on the water. We turn on the water to brush our teeth, to take a shower, or maybe make our much-needed coffee. We turn on our water without hesitation because we assume it will always be there. However, for millions across America, the fear of having their water shut off is a harsh reality. As the cost of water rises, little information is available about the impacts of utility policies, such as shut-offs, on vulnerable communities. But water service data could soon become accessible to the public in Massachusetts because of a new bill proposal.

In Massachusetts, renters and homeowners alike experience the financial burden of rising water costs. Since 2005, a landlord can bill tenants starting new tenancies directly for water if the property meets the law’s requirements for submetering and water conservation. In the absence of submetering, a landlord simply pays the water bill based on the usage registered on a primary meter, but a landlord may still take rising water costs into account in other ways such as raising rent. So, what happens when either a tenant or a homeowner cannot afford their water bill?

As a matter of law, utilities usually cannot shut off a tenant’s water if the landlord defaults. While this may seem to shield renters from the risk of shut-offs, this is actually far from reality. Tenants may be unaware of the landlord’s default, and water utilities can shut off a tenant’s water before the tenant knows their rights. The process to get their water turned back on can be cumbersome, leaving a tenant without water for several days. Currently, because there is no requirement for tracking the number of water shut-offs and shut-off notices, it is impossible to know how many water customers have had their water shut off. Further, if residents are experiencing issues with paying their water bill there is no statewide program that provides water assistance to low-income renters or homeowners.

Homeowners face additional risks. An outstanding water bill may be converted into a tax lien which is added to the customer’s real estate tax bill. If a tax lien remains unpaid the interest on the amount will rapidly compound until the homeowner is at risk of losing their property. According to a report titled “A Drop in the Bucket,” by Northeastern’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, three Massachusetts communities – Somerville, Brookline, and Chelsea – reported using tax liens as collection devices for water bills in fiscal year 2018, with 6,567 liens recorded across the three municipalities because of unpaid water and sanitation bills.

The issue of water shut-offs due to an inability to afford one’s bill is likely to get worse. Cities across the country are grappling with aging infrastructure that is very costly to repair. Recent federal allocations to address these issues are important but will cover only a fraction of the repair costs, and they are not sufficient to prevent rising water bills. Climate change is also playing a role in higher water costs. An increase in the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather severely challenges water utility systems that were not designed to withstand intense events. Further, droughts lead to severe pressure on overall water supply. The rising cost of water is a state and national phenomenon that will continue to get worse and threaten our most at risk communities with losing a basic human right.

The disparate racial impact of water policies such as shut offs means that this is also a civil rights issue. The advocacy group Massachusetts Global Action (MGA) studied the relationship between income, race, and water access in Boston in its 2012 Color of Water project. Looking at water shut-off notices from 2007 to 2011, MGA found a “strong, persistent relationship between race and water access.” While controlling for income, MGA found, “[f]or every two percent increase in people of color by city ward, there was a corresponding three percent increase in the likelihood of a water shutoff notice being issued.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund also traced the connection between water shut-offs and racial justice in its 2019 report titled “Water/Color: A Study of Race and The Water Affordability Crisis in America’s Cities.” That study found that water utilities may be overly aggressive with collection tactics, punishing their customers for their inability to pay their bills by shutting off their water and taking their homes. In many instances, cities may be improperly billing their customers or providing insufficient means to dispute a bill. As shown by the city studies of Baltimore and Cleveland, and the lessons learned in Detroit and Flint, these practices are likely to have a disproportionate impact on Black people.

Recent data from other states also show that water policies have a disparate impact on certain communities. Since September 2021, privately owned water utilities in Illinois have been tracking water shut-offs by zip codes, and the data show that poor communities and Black and brown communities are subjected to the highest levels of water shut-offs. Since we all have a basic need for water, water utilities need to rethink their policies to ensure water access for all communities. A water transparency law can make a meaningful difference in helping utilities craft policies that better avoid shut offs and other harmful policies that fall hardest on Black and brown communities.

State Sen. Rebecca Rausch and by Rep. Tommy Vitolo have introduced a bill to do just that. Their legislation, SD1543/HD3494, will advance water equity through utility reporting requirements, including reporting on the number of water shut offs. This bill has already gained the support of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the United State Commission on Civil Rights, which called for robust water data reporting requirements in order to prevent disparate impacts on communities of color.

To collect data on water shut-offs, we have to go through utilities themselves. But across the country, there has been pushback from utilities on collecting and reporting data. Why? One issue is resources — water utilities may argue that they do not have the bandwidth to report data on water shut-offs. However, mandated reporting is common for other utilities and essential services. Schools must report on the number of dropouts, hospitals must report on the number vaccines they give out, even farmers must report food safety information. There is no reason to exempt water utilities from similar accountability.

There are numerous reasons why water shut-offs have become unequitable. By turning over data on their services, utilities themselves could be a part of the solution instead of stalling it. Whether it is a resources problem or fear of what the data will show, the public has a right to know exactly where, to whom, and how often, water shut-offs are occurring. The longer we ignore the issue, the worse it will get.

States are slowing starting to recognize this. In September, New Jersey passed a law that requires both public and private water utilities to report on the number of water shut-offs along with other very critical data. Massachusetts should and can be the next state to pass a law that would honor the human right to water by requiring water utilities to report critical data on water shut-offs, laying the groundwork for more effective water policies. Some of these policies would include developing assistance programs for low-income individuals and ensuring that these programs are communicated to consumers.

Another policy that would address the issue of water inequity and affordability would be to make it more difficult for residents to lose their home due to unaffordable water bills. In Baltimore, unaffordable water bills have led to numerous residents losing their homes. In response, Maryland’s state leaders passed a law protecting residents from property seizure over unaffordable water bills.

Meet the Author
In Massachusetts, we cannot develop policies that will successfully address water inequity and unaffordability until we get data from water utilities. After all, we cannot fix what we do not measure. Access to water is a fundamental human right. It’s time to hold the utilities accountable and implement permanent solutions to prevent shut-offs.

Sanea Lamas, a student at Northeastern University School of Law, has been working with the law school’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy to improve water access and affordability.