BALTIMORE—Today, the Young administration plans to request a major delay for the implementation of the Water Accountability & Equity Act. It is requested just 3 weeks before the legislation’s mandated implementation deadline. This push for delay comes after years of the Department of Public Works dragging its feet on water justice action, refusing to accept independent help to overcome any obstacles that would merit delay, and amidst promises to uplift racial equity despite clear evidence that this is a racial justice issue.
The Administration did not announce their plans to request a delay, but instead added it as an item to tonight’s City Council agenda — see CB 20-0546: “Amend Effective Date for Water Accountability & Equity Act.” The proposal, introduced on behalf of the administration, would push back the deadline for implementing the Water Accountability & Equity Act by nearly a year — from this July 13th, 2020 to July 1, 2021.
“Against a backdrop of a pandemic and an outcry to address systemic racism, it is a moral failure for Mayor Young and the Department of Public Works to seek to delay the implementation date nearly a year for legislation that would lift the burden of unaffordable water bills for struggling families throughout our city,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer with Food & Water Action. “The implementation deadline is in just three weeks. The Department must have known for months that it would not be able to meet this deadline, and instead of trying to do all that they can, they’re asking low-income families in Baltimore to wait another year for truly affordable water bills. This is unacceptable. The Council must reject this bill.”
For nearly four years, the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition has been working with the City Council to put in place a program to correct Baltimore’s many water woes, and create a more equitable, transparent, and functional system. After unsuccessful attempts to kill the bill before it was passed, the Department of Public Works has now also attempted to avoid implementing the bill in multiple ways as well. The Department has failed to provide suggested written amendments for the public hearings and work sessions last year, ignored assistance from experts that the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition has connected them with, failed to meet the mandated deadline to release draft regulations for the affordability program, and also written to key Committee members seeking to gut and delay the bill.
“The people of Baltimore have waited too long already for the accountability and affordability measures in the WAEA - and at too high a cost, said Karen Wabake, Senior Attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project. “Safe, clean and affordable water is a human right and is more important than ever in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We urge the City Council to reject this latest attempt by DPW to stall this critical legislation.”
In addition, a report published last year, by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund called Water/Color: A Study of Race and the Water Affordability Crisis in America’s Cities found that municipal discrimination in the provision of water services runs deep. The report highlights that in 2019, water bills exceeded two percent of Black median income in 118 of 200 census tracts. Sixty-five percent of the Black population in Baltimore lives in these tracts. Only 19 of the 118 tracts are not majority-Black. In 98 tracts, bills range from two to four percent of Black median income. Eighty-three of these tracts are majority-Black. In 15 tracts, 12 of which are majority-Black, households will have to spend four to six percent of their incomes on water bills. In five tracts, water will cost six to eight percent of Black median income.
“Our groundbreaking research confirmed that water rates in Baltimore are rising more rapidly than the national average,” said Coty Montag, Senior Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and author of Water/Color. “We drilled down on a key 2017 Food & Watch study by looking at the specific impact of rising water rates on the predominantly Black population. Low-income families of color are being forced out of their homes because of these water prices. LDF supports the Water Accountability & Equity Act, which would provide for income-based billing for impoverished residents and other critical customer protections.”
“To push off implementation of critical programs which will address racial inequity, at a time of international uprising over racism and state violence, is callous and tone deaf,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore Director at Jews United for Justice.
The affordability provisions outlined in the Water Accountability & Equity Act would not only assist the tens of thousands of Baltimoreans that were already struggling with water bills, but it would also assist all of the Baltimoreans who are now facing job loss and wage loss as a result of the pandemic. From March 21st to June 13th, 2020, 70,731 Baltimoreans filed unemployment claims - 11% of the total population in the city.
“To wait until this point, a few weeks before implementation, after rejecting the years-long process to introduce and pass the bill, is senseless, said Amy Hennen, Director of Advocacy and Financial Stabilization at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “Low and moderate income families in Baltimore deserve better. This is particularly true for tenants who are left out of current affordability programs.”
“The legal mandate from the City Council, and the people of Baltimore, is clear and unambiguous: DPW must change. The only way change will happen is to get started,” said Jaime Lee, Associate Professor and Director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.