Baltimore, Detroit ‘Criminalizing’ Low-Income People, Shutting Off Their Water

Baltimore's water shutoff crackdown focuses on households, while businesses, government offices, and nonprofits accounted for the vast majority of the unpaid water fees.

Baltimore's water shutoff crackdown focuses on households, while businesses, government offices, and nonprofits accounted for the vast majority of the unpaid water fees. Shutterstock

The Baltimore Department of Public Works (DPW) was preparing to shut off water to homes around the city during the uprising over the death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who died while in police custody. The shutoffs would disproportionately affect many of the people in racially segregated, economically distressed communities embroiled in conflicts with law enforcement.

The DPW water shutoff crackdown focused on households, while businesses, government offices, and nonprofits accounted for the vast majority of the unpaid water fees.

City officials announced in March that upwards of 25,000 residents would receive notices that their water services may be shut off. The notices would be sent to customers who have outstanding water bills of $250 or more, and residents would have ten days to pay the entire bill before service was shut off.

More than 1,600 Baltimore residents have had their water shut off in the past six weeks, according to the Baltimore Sun. The vast majority of the notices were sent to residences in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city.

“We want to make sure all of our citizens pay their fair share,” Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow said in an interview. “When we don’t collect the necessary revenues, it causes us to raise water rates as a result. The citizens who are paying their bills are, in effect, subsidizing those who are not paying.”

Less than half of the $40 million in delinquent water bills are from residents. Unpaid bills from 369 businesses account for more than $15 million and government offices and nonprofits account for another $10 million of the unpaid water bills, according to an investigation by the Baltimore Sun.

Since the shutoffs began, the city has collected about $5 million in overdue water bill payments, reports the Baltimore Brew. Only about $1 million has been collected from commercial customers. None of those commercial customers have had their water shut off. Only residential customers have had their water service suspended, according to a review of public records by the Baltimore Sun.

A private firm is conducting a financial audit of the DPW and four other Baltimore city agencies. The audit was in response to mounting evidence that suggested the DPW has been over-billing customers. It is the first time city agencies have been audited in 25 years.

The water shutoffs, leaving many in the city’s low-income communities without water, could have serious public health consequences. Mary Grant, a researcher with Food and Water Watch, told ThinkProgress that the water shutoffs could allow for diseases to propagate throughout densely-populated neighborhoods.

“There is direct risk associated with lack of access to water,” Grant said. “When you lose your water service, you lose water to wash your hands to flush the toilet, there is risk of disease spreading.”

Another issue facing residents: those who rent homes are seeing landlords shift the burden of paying water bills onto tenants who have outright not paid water bills for rental properties. The city refuses to open new water accounts for anyone who isn’t a property owner, reports the Baltimore Sun.

Activists have protested the policy as “inhuman,” charging that the policy punishes people living in poverty.

“We’re in a state of shock and outrage,” Sharon Black, an activist with the People’s Power Assembly, told the Baltimore Sun during a protest outside city hall in March. “People aren’t paying their water bills, because they can’t afford to.”

Residents who have delinquent accounts could face action by the city in the form of a tax sale. Property could face foreclosure if an owner owes at least $500. Baltimore city officials have said they are planning to hire an ombudsman to help residents avoid such measures.

The city put 8,278 properties up for tax sale in 2014.

Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, told the Baltimore Sun that the policy is not being equally applied to residential and commercial customers. “If most of the debt is owned by commercial properties, why would they get the white glove treatment,” Hill said. “Did Baltimore City not learn anything from Detroit?”

The Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) last year shut off water service to residents with unpaid bills in an effort to collect more than $119 million in delinquent payments from more than 150,000 customers. Like in Baltimore, Detroit’s commercial customers represent more than half of the unpaid water dues.

Detroit announced this month that it would send out water shutoff notices to 25,000 households with overdue water bills, and give them ten days to seek assistance from the city or lose water service, reports Al Jazeera.

The shutoffs are set to begin next week.

According to a city report, there are more than 73,000 residential accounts with bills that are at least two months late, reports the Detroit Free Press.

Tawana Petty, a spokesperson for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, told Rewire that the mayor and the DWSD have conducted a public relations campaign to distract residents and those who want to report the truth about what is happening to low-income people in Detroit.

While Baltimore is not going through bankruptcy nor under the rule of an emergency manager—as Detroit is—there are similarities between the water shutoffs in the two cities.

There were reportedly efforts to privatize water services in both cities. Activists in Detroit and Baltimore were alarmed by former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s exploration of privatizing the DWSD and the Baltimore Department of Public Works’ requests for proposals from consulting firms for a study of the water system.

“What they do is, they come in and do an efficiency study, and then two years from now what they will do is say that we want to downsize the workers, contract them out of their jobs,” Glenard Middleton, a local labor leader, told the Baltimore Sun.

Both cities have large communities of color that have disproportionately high rates of unemployment and poverty, significant infrastructure problems that include crumbling water systems, and long histories of discriminatory housing policies and incidents of police brutality.

Activists believe that these similarities are not accidental.

“If you look at the cities where they are doing these mass overhauls, where they are shutting water off and criminalizing people, they are in predominately Black communities,” Petty said.

Maureen Taylor, chairwoman for the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, told Rewire that while efforts to privatize water services are taking hold in low-income communities of color, they will affect all low-income communities, regardless of race.

“They start by coming to the door of the African-American community,” Taylor said. “The larger white community won’t fight or get involved because they’ll think, ‘It’s not on our doorstep.'”

The population of Detroit is 82.7 percent Black. Baltimore is 63.7 percent Black. In Detroit, 38.1 percent of residents live below the poverty line, while in Baltimore, 23.8 percent live in poverty. The average annual income of a Black Baltimore household is about half a white household in Baltimore.

Corporate interests have lobbied for water privatization in communities across the country and across the world, despite privatization often being more costly and less efficient.

Police brutality, often against people of color, is also common in Baltimore and Detroit. Baltimore has paid out more than $5.7 million to victims of 100 police brutality lawsuits since 2011.

“The problems reflect a long-standing dysfunctional relationship between law enforcement and citizens, structural poverty, and the legacy of discrimination in housing and finance policy,” wrote Leana Wen and Joshua Sharfstein in a recent commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The authors note that there is a large amount of data that shows significant disparities between low-income communities of color and Baltimore’s more affluent and predominately white communities.

Jennifer Epps-Addison of Wisconsin Jobs Now told Rewire that systemic inequalities all interact to create deep-seated injustice.

“If Black lives matter, then Black wages have to matter, then reproductive justice for Black women has to matter, then all Black lives have to matter, not just some Black lives,” she said.