Municipal discrimination in the provision of water services runs deep. Black communities are disproportionately impacted by the rising cost of water and the water affordability crisis. As the price of water continues to rise, more and more people fall behind on their water bills. In many cities, an unpaid water bill can cost residents their homes. People who can’t afford their water bills face service termination, hefty liens, foreclosures, and evictions.
Published in 2019, LDF’s groundbreaking report Water/Color: A Study of Race and the Water Affordability Crisis in America’s Cities details the long history of discrimination in municipal water services and the devastating impact on low-income communities of color. The report includes case studies on the crisis in Cleveland, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland. The report demonstrates how water costs are allocated in each area, documents the rise in water costs to residents in recent years, and analyzes each jurisdiction’s use of water liens for unpaid bills.
LDF’s report begins with a historical overview of the construction of urban water systems in the U.S. and the development of water policy from the late 18th century to the present, including a discussion of Black access (or lack thereof) to water systems and services over time. We explain the current water affordability crisis impacting Black communities and identify failing infrastructure as the biggest contributor to rising costs. To demonstrate the disproportionate impact of rising water bills on Black communities, the report includes a review of the affordability crises in Baltimore and Cleveland. Our research demonstrates how water services are allocated in both metropolitan areas, documents the spike in water costs in recent years, and analyzes each jurisdiction’s use of water liens for unpaid bills. Finally, we provide a framework for potential litigation and policy solutions to challenge water lien sales and service shutoffs that have a disproportionate impact on Black communities.
LDF has been working to ensure that Black communities have access to clean water services for decades. In the late 1960s, LDF pioneered an innovative campaign to equalize municipal services in Black communities throughout America, although the full reach of this effort was later limited by the Supreme Court. LDF has filed several landmark lawsuits to challenge discrimination in water services over the years. In 1967, LDF filed Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, the first-ever lawsuit challenging a municipality’s discriminatory provision of public services under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
LDF’s report examines early waterworks systems in the U.S., which revolutionized public health and defined the social contract between the American metropolis and its citizens. We conclude that the historical view of water as a public good ensured that, at least initially, cities priced their water low and did not preclude service to those who could not afford it. Despite this, many of our early waterworks were privately-owned, but not without controversy, including higher rates for customers and poor service.
As U.S. cities became more racially segregated, localities prioritized service to white areas. Increased patterns of residential segregation enabled municipalities to more easily deprive majority-Black neighborhoods of access to essential services, including water and sewer.
In recent decades, the price of water has skyrocketed. Our research confirmed that failing infrastructure is the biggest contributing factor to rising water costs. Water is becoming increasingly unaffordable in communities nationwide. Unsurprisingly, rising water rates are most likely to impact communities of color.
In addition to the affordability crisis, discrimination and divestment in infrastructure and water systems has left Black communities without reliable access to clean, drinkable water. Lack of clean water access is a public health and environmental crisis. And it has been happening for decades. This long history of discrimination has impacted generations of Black Americans and continues to do so today.
The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan has received widespread media and public attention since 2014. The September 2022 water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi and the city’s history of discrimination in water services and failing infrastructure has also been subject to widespread media and public scrutiny. But these cities are not alone: Across the country, Black communities have been denied access to clean, drinkable water, and time and time again they have suffered the health and environmental consequences.
When people can’t pay their water bills, they face service shutoffs and lien sales that lead to evictions and foreclosures. Punitive shutoff policies trap people in cycles of water insecurity with repeated disconnections and reconnections that threaten their health and safety. Without access to running water, families are unable to cook, bathe, clean, or flush their toilets. Additionally, families may forego medical expenses or food in order to pay their water bills.
We determined that there is a process in every state for local governments to place liens on homes for unpaid water or sewer bills, including for unpaid debt of just a few hundred dollars. In many states, a water or sewer lien can lead to foreclosure and eviction. Every state has a process authorizing local governments to place liens on properties when homeowners fail to pay property taxes or certain municipal charges, including for water and sewer services. In many states, if the homeowner does not satisfy the lien (including interest and costs), they can lose their home at tax sale or their lien might be sold to a private investor, who can later evict them.
In many states, the lack of water service may impact parents’ ability to retain custody of their children. For example, in Michigan, the lack of running water is a factor in determining whether parents are providing a suitable home for their children. In some states, the inability to pay for water and sanitation services can lead to criminal charges or other legal action. In Detroit, residents can face felony criminal charges for reconnecting their water without permission from the utility. In Baltimore, it is a misdemeanor to reconnect a water supply after a service disconnection.308 And in Alabama, it is a misdemeanor to build, maintain, or use a sewage system that is not sanitary, which can place significant financial burdens on families.
When our waterworks systems were built in the late 19th century, some were owned by local governments and others by private companies. In 1860, over half of all waterworks in the U.S. were private, although many of the largest cities had public systems. The correlation between ownership and the economic health of the city was strong: the more financially stable a city, the more likely it would retain public ownership of its waterworks.
Of particular concern, the privatization of water supplies can have a singular and disproportionate impact on communities of color, including higher rates of service cutoffs. There are water quality issues as well: the world’s largest private water company, the French firm Veolia, was sued for its role in the lead crises in both Flint and Pittsburgh.
The move toward public water systems was stymied during the 1980s and 1990s. During the Reagan administration, the federal government weakened environmental protections, ended the Clean Water Act grant program, and decreased public funding for water. Between 1993 and 2003, the number of public systems operating under private contracts nearly tripled from 400 to 1,100. History began to repeat itself, and communities suffered under privatization.
Federal funding for water infrastructure has declined some 77 percent since from its peak in the 1970s. State funding for water has also greatly decreased over time. As state and federal funding dried up, municipal water systems looked to customers to fill the funding gap through privatization, higher rates and aggressive shutoff and lien policies. Food & Water Watch, a social justice organization, has determined that privately-owned water utilities charge customers, on average, 59 percent more for water service. There are water quality issues as well: the world’s largest private water company, the French firm Veolia, was sued for its role in the lead crises in both Flint and Pittsburgh.
There has also been significant pushback against privatization and movement toward a renewed commitment that the provision of water is a public good, for public good. In 2018, Baltimore became the first major city in the U.S. to ban water privatization when 77 percent of city voters approved a charter amendment declaring the water system a permanent, inalienable asset of the city.
Our research confirmed a clear connection between racial residential segregation and Black access to water systems. Housing patterns helped inform access to water when our nation’s public infrastructure was first constructed: as racial segregation at that time typically was limited to a street, or few city blocks, rather than stretching the width and breadth of an entire city ward or census tract, it was more difficult for municipalities to deny water services specifically to Black families, given the networked nature of these systems. The ensuing expansion of access to water led to an overall decline in Black mortality in the early 20th century. As U.S. cities became more racially segregated, however, localities prioritized service to white areas.
In the mid-20th century, residential segregation greatly increased in the United States, as homeownership became a reality for many white middle-class families and discrimination in both the public and private sectors restricted housing options in Black communities. Increased patterns of residential segregation enabled municipalities to more easily deprive majority-Black neighborhoods of access to essential services, including water and sewer. In the late 1960s, LDF pioneered an innovative campaign to equalize municipal services in Black communities throughout America, although the full reach of this effort was later limited by the Supreme Court.
In recent decades, the price of water has skyrocketed. Our research confirmed that failing infrastructure is the biggest contributing factor to rising water costs. Water rates vary widely among cities and regions, due to factors such as population loss and local political dynamics. Regardless, water is becoming increasingly unaffordable in communities nationwide. Of particular concern, the current accepted methodology for determining whether water is affordable (two/2.5 percent of median household income) is unsupported by social science research and may not capture the full extent to which water is unaffordable, highlighting the need for a revised, validated standard. Unsurprisingly, rising water rates are most likely to impact communities of color.
Families can lose their homes (either practically or literally) and can suffer health risks for the failure to pay their water bills.
In recent years, water shutoffs have significantly increased as utilities have become more aggressive in their collection practices, particularly after the Great Recession when many cities struggled financially. As noted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a water service cutoff is tantamount to an eviction in some instances, as the home may be deemed uninhabitable. In one extreme example, the city of Easton, Pennsylvania had a policy of evicting residents when their water service was disconnected for nonpayment. The restoration of service required a code inspection and repair of any code violations, which low-income households often could not afford. (The city has since changed its law.) Water shutoffs also pose a threat to public health and human dignity. Without access to running water, families are unable to cook, bathe, clean, or flush their toilets. Additionally, families may forego medical expenses or food in order to pay their water bills.
Detroit is the most well-known example of a city facing a water shutoff crisis. In 2014, approximately 44,000 households in the city had their water service disconnected for nonpayment of bills. With the ACLU of Michigan, LDF advocated for a moratorium and expressed grave concern about the policy’s racial impact. Despite this advocacy, and the international attention given to the shutoffs, they have continued—in 2016, there were 28,000 service interruptions and nearly 18,000 were at risk of losing service in Detroit in May 2018.
But Detroit is not alone. Among other examples, about one in five customers in New Orleans and Gary, Indiana experienced disruptions to their water service in 2015, and about one in eight customers lost water in Birmingham, Alabama and Youngstown, Ohio. More recently, a 2019 joint study by APM Reports, Great Lakes Today, and National Public Radio found that utilities in Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, Buffalo, and Duluth collectively issued nearly 370,000 shutoff notices over the last decade.
We determined that there is a process in every state for local governments to place liens on homes for unpaid water or sewer bills, including for unpaid debt of just a few hundred dollars. In many states, a water or sewer lien can lead to foreclosure and eviction. These liens have a potentially devastating impact on homeownership rates and have been shown to disproportionately impact communities of color.
While most are familiar with Flint’s water contamination crisis, the city’s water lien crisis has not garnered as much attention. In 2017, about 8,000 Flint homeowners were warned that they were at risk of losing their homes through tax foreclosure for failure to pay their bills for (contaminated) water. LDF, once again in collaboration with the ACLU of Michigan, persuaded the city to suspend efforts to place property liens on homes with unpaid water bills. While Flint resumed its water lien practice in 2018, the city agreed in 2019 not to place liens on owner-occupied properties and the Genesee County treasurer has stated that she will not proceed with any foreclosures based on unpaid water bills while Flint is under a water emergency. LDF continues to monitor this situation. Further advocacy may be needed to ensure that Flint residents are not at risk of losing their homes due to unpaid water bills.
In many states, the lack of water service may impact custody of one’s children. For example, in Michigan, the lack of running water is a factor in determining whether parents are providing a suitable home for their children. In some states, the inability to pay for water and sanitation services can lead to criminal charges or other legal action.
Property liens for unpaid water bills as low as $300 are a massive problem in Cleveland. In Cuyahoga County, more than 11,000 water liens were placed on properties between 2014 and 2018. LDF found that most water liens placed on homes in Cuyahoga County are located in majority-Black neighborhoods. Cleveland’s water department has been troubled by issues like billing glitches, customer service issues, and a faulty process for customers to contest their bills. Despite documented, persistent issues and overbilling, the city continues to shut off water services.
Cleveland’s News 5 investigative team, led by Chief Investigative Reporter Ron Regan, uncovered a series of issues with the city’s water department over the last decade. Cleveland Water received more than 72,000 water customer billing complaints between 2013 and 2017. Though customers can dispute their bills before the Water Review Board, few have the opportunity to do so, and unpaid bills still result in shutoffs even if a complaint is filed. Customers requested 207 hearings in 2018, but only 33 were held. Of the hearings that were held, 28 percent of customers received no relief, and 26 percent received only a payment plan — with no bill adjustment — to pay off their debt.
Cleveland Water also disconnects water service to thousands of delinquent customers every year. City officials have explained to local advocates that, to maximize efficiency, they prioritize utility shutoffs by targeting households with overdue balances in close proximity to one another. This potentially penalizes predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods, effectively making no distinction between an account in arrears for a few thousand dollars, or just a few hundred. Compounding these problems, for at least a decade, Cleveland’s water department has been troubled by issues like billing glitches, customer service issues, and a faulty process for customers to contest their bills. LDF found that Cleveland’s Water Review Board seldom grants complainants a hearing and even fewer ever see any adjustment in their bill. For example, while customers requested 207 hearings in 2018, only 33 were held. Of the hearings that were held, 28 percent of customers received no relief, and 26 percent received only a payment plan—with no bill adjustment—to pay off their debt.
Twice a year, in September and March, Cleveland Water has the ability to place liens on homes for outstanding debt in the county where water service is provided. In addition to water service shutoffs, Cleveland Water can place liens on homes with overdue water or sewer bills and the county treasurer can initiate foreclosure action.
Just over 60 percent of Baltimore’s population is Black. Until recently, Baltimore regularly placed liens on homes for unpaid water bills as low as $350, which contributed to an overall decrease in homeownership in the predominantly Black city. Legislative efforts at the state and city level, spearheaded by water equality advocates, bring the promise of much-needed reforms to address the water crisis in Baltimore.
Baltimore’s water rates have risen more rapidly than the national average. When measured either from 2006 to 2016 or from 2010 to 2018, the cost of water service in Baltimore increased by 127 percent. Annual bills for combined water and wastewater The cost of water and wastewater services increased 37 percent between 2014 and 2018 alone. Residents saw their water bills skyrocket from an average of $517.26 to $787.58.
In the last several years, Baltimore has been aggressive in handling delinquent water and wastewater accounts. The city may disconnect water service to any customer who owes at least $250 over two months of billing. In 2015, Baltimore disconnected service to 8,100 residential properties. Only half had their water restored after settling the accounts. Residents also pay a shutoff fee of almost $100, further financially burdening and punishing people who cannot afford the rising costs.
Baltimore residents have lost their homes for the failure to pay water bills as small as $350. Until recently, when a temporary—and now permanent—ban has barred the practice, Baltimore placed liens on homes for the failure to pay water or wastewater bills and sold those liens in the city’s annual property tax auctions.
Days after the water system in Jackson, Mississippi failed, Baltimore, Maryland, 62% of whose residents are Black, faced a water and public health crisis of its own.
In July 2022, the Jackson, Misissippi water system reached its breaking point and failed, leaving residents, businesses, and schools without reliable running water.
LDF Original Content
Black communities across the country have been suffering from lack of access to clean water for decades. These crises are not new. They are the result of decades of divestment and environmental racism