The Baltimore Right to Water Coalition applauds the City of Baltimore for officially enacting the Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA) and spearheading a growing water affordability movement across the country.
In November 2019, the Baltimore City Council voted unanimously in favor of the bill, and today Mayor Jack Young signed the bill making it an official law.
“Baltimore is shattering antiquated water billing inequities, setting a new benchmark for billing fairness and government accountability, and rising up as a water justice champion in this country,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Organizer, Food & Water Action. “Baltimoreans can now rest easy knowing they will be able to afford to turn on the tap, but the rest of America is still far behind. We need federal action to make sure the rest of the country catches up to Baltimore and all Americans have access to safe, clean, and affordable public water.”
The United Nations has declared that water bills should not exceed 3 percent of a household income. Black households most pay disproportionately high bills. With WAEA, Baltimore has made steps to eradicate racial water injustice and become the second city after Philadelphia to set up a percentage-of-income water affordability program.
“The Water Accountability & Equity Act will transform Baltimore’s broken water billing system to work for people,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore Director, Jews United For Justice. “We have been a part of bringing this critical, desperately needed legislation from introduction to enactment and we will continue to diligently engage to ensure swift and successful implementation of the law.”
Baltimore’s water justice leadership began with a historic win against privatization. In 2018, voters protected public ownership over the water system by passing a charter amendment to declare Baltimore’s water system a permanent, inalienable asset of the city. After that, the City proved the value of keeping the water system public, by passing the Water Taxpayer Protect Act to protect homeowners, renters, and places of worship from losing their properties over unpaid water bills.
“This law is designed to turn this agency around. It requires affordable rates, new ways to solve high-bill problems, a people’s advocate, and a public process for reforming DPW,” said Jaime Lee, Associate Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and Director of its Community Development Clinic. “Now, we need strong new leadership at DPW to robustly implement the law and to rebuild public trust.”
Now, the City has transformed the public water system yet again with WAEA by completely overhauling the outdated water billing system. Water bills will be based on percentage-of-income, ensuring all residents, including those of low-income and black households, can afford the price of their water. There will be a customer advocate’s office with a mission of promoting fairness to customers, and a structure for appealing high bills and other problems commonly faced by customers.
“Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service is excited to support DPW as they work to implement this bill,” said Amy Hennen, Managing Attorney at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “City residents will benefit immensely, whether they are homeowners or renters. Affordable water is a quality of life issue as well as a human right.”
Similar affordability efforts are pending in Chicago and as of January 13, 10,000 Detroit households still have no running water due to shutoffs in response to unpaid bills. Across the country, the water affordability crisis is growing. Baltimore is providing a model for a national water justice movement.