Baltimore, MD -- The Baltimore Right to Water Coalition learned last week that Mayor Jack Young has blocked implementation of the Water Accountability & Equity Act (WAEA) indefinitely through an unreleased Executive Order signed on July 8, 2020. The order delays the effective date of the law from July 13, 2020, until 30 days after the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency, indefinitely blocking water protections for Baltimore’s tenants. The unpublicized executive order comes amid growing fear of an eviction “avalanche,” as the Maryland Judiciary’s moratorium on evictions expired last week. By blocking tenants’ protections under the WAEA, Mayor Young’s executive order risks increasing the number of evictions brought by landlords to collect unpaid water bills.
The timing of the Executive Order, signed less than one week before the WAEA was set to become law, continues a pattern of inaction on equitable water billing in which the Mayor neglected the legislative process, then slow-walked implementing regulations, and finally introduced legislation to delay the WAEA’s effective date by 12 months. By withholding the order from the public, the Mayor is hiding his decision to undercut a program Baltimore City was legally required to implement. Under the current billing system, tenants need their landlords to proactively add them to water accounts to receive bills, qualify for assistance, or dispute incorrect bills. For many renters, this makes it virtually impossible to get the necessary help. The WAEA gives tenants “customer” status -- providing them a clear pathway to apply for assistance and to dispute incorrect bills, even if they have an absentee landlord.
“Mayor Young invoking coronavirus as a reason to indefinitely delay the implementation of the Water Accountability & Equity Act is an absolute failure of leadership,” says Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer with Food & Water Action. “Baltimoreans can lose their housing due to unaffordable water bills, an injustice that implementing this crucial piece of water affordability legislation could help prevent. It is never right for families to be forced out onto the street because they can’t pay their water bills or rent, but in the midst of a pandemic, it is especially egregious. Young may blame COVID-19 for his inaction, but this move is just another example of how the administration is undermining this vitally important legislation. There is simply no excuse.”
“Although a Court of Appeals ruling says landlords cannot include water in failure to pay rent cases, they can ask the court to evict tenants for breach of lease, if paying the water bills is part of the lease,” says Amy Hennen, Director of Advocacy and Financial Stabilization at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “The courts are prioritizing breach of lease actions right now. This puts tenants, who haven’t been able to pay large water bills (because their landlord won’t assist them in getting a reduction), at particular risk. This is cruelty for struggling Baltimore residents right now.”
“This might be the only example during this crisis when a Maryland leader has invoked COVID-19 to purposely weaken rights and legal protections that were legislated for the benefit of vulnerable populations,” says Zafar Shah, Attorney at the Public Justice Center. “The Mayor has done a lot of good during the emergency, but this executive order is a major misstep. People need affordable water and stable housing right now, not delays and politics.”