Water is being turned off to 25,000 households in Baltimore. We, the members of Right to Housing Alliance and concerned residents of Baltimore City, demand a moratorium on water shut-offs, because water is a BASIC HUMAN RIGHT that we all need to survive.
Don’t let our residents suffer the indignity of life without water in their homes. Don’t let Baltimore become another Detroit.
The impact of water shut-offs on residents goes far beyond the lack of water. In Baltimore, homeowners can lose their homes to tax-lien foreclosures, and renters can be evicted for not paying their water bills, as they are often collected as rent.
A home without water is not a home at all. We urge you to sign the petition to stop the water shut-offs, to ask for the largest commercial users to be targeted first, and to demand that we are the kind of city that ensures that access to basic human rights are a priority.
Brewing Human Rights Crisis In Baltimore As City Threatens Mass Water Shutoffs
Residents warn move is part of global trend ‘towards the commodification of our basic needs’
In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explicitly recognized water as a human right, saying it is “indispensable for leading a life in human dignity.” (Photo: Davide Restivo/Wikimedia/cc)
In what residents warn is a mounting human rights crisis, the city of Baltimore has commenced sending 25,000 notices, the vast majority to city and county residents, threatening to shut off water if delinquent bills are not paid within ten days.
The organization Food & Water Watch estimates that 75,000 residents are under immediate threat of having their taps turned off, in a city beset with rising water rates and housing costs, where nearly one out of four people live below the federal poverty line.
Jessica Lewis, co-founder of the Right to Housing Alliance, a human rights organization led by people most affected by the affordable housing crisis in Baltimore, told Common Dreams that local communities are in the process of assessing the impact and getting organized.
“A lot of renters we work with are angry but also tired, because they see more and more of the costs of having a place to live getting further out of reach,” said Lewis. “This is part of a continuing trend towards the commodification of our basic needs.”
Reporter Luke Broadwater revealed in the Baltimore Sun late last month that the notices had been sent out to customers who owe more than $250 dating back at least six months. Only 369 of the 25,000 accounts receiving shut off notices are businesses, but they comprise $15 million of the $40 million the city says is owed in unpaid bills.
In addition, a Baltimore Sun report in 2012 found that big businesses, government outfits, and nonprofits had together accrued more than $10 million in unpaid water bills.
But residents who are unable to pay will likely be hardest hit when the water stops flowing.
Baltimore water rates have been raised more than 40 percent in the past three years—an increase compounded by a rise in housing prices, according to Lewis. This means many are simply unable to pay to have their basic needs met.
Furthermore, thanks to Baltimore tenant policies, water and housing insecurity are even further intertwined. “Water bills can be considered part of a tenant’s rent, so they can be evicted for not paying,” explained Lewis. “If there is a structural problem, like a leaking water pipe, that can make the water bills outrageous.”
According to Matt Hill and Zafar Shah of Baltimore’s Public Justice Center, “Low-income renters are in a particularly precarious situation because they cannot get their own water accounts, and Baltimore Public Works does not allow them to challenge inaccurate billing practices or adjust for leaks because the accounts are not in their names.”
In a city that is 63 percent black and plagued with racial inequalities, the shut-offs are poised to disproportionately impact people of color.
Mitch Jones of Food & Water Watch pointed out in a statement released Tuesday, “It is not even clear whether all the bills for those targeted for shut-off are accurate, given Baltimore’s history of over-billing—one of the reasons behind the city’s effort to install smart meters.”
While it is not yet clear if the city’s massive purge is part of a drive to privatize the city’s water, residents say there are reasons to be concerned. Last year, labor, church, and community leaders with the coalition One Baltimore United organized to keep the water system public, in response to an increasingly cozy relationship between water corporation Veolia and the city.
The fight for access to water is a global flashpoint, as corporations around the world attempt to seize control of this vital good, and communities from Detroit to Dublin fight back. In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explicitly recognized water as a human right, saying it is “indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”
“The issue of water shutoffs intersects with issues of privatization, and they intersect with issues of displacement of communities of color, especially black communities,” William Copeland of the Detroit-based East Michigan Environmental Action Council told Common Dreams. “Here in Detroit, a big part of our organizing is about protecting the commons.”
Analysts warn that, in Baltimore, lives are on the line.
“Disconnecting service to thousands of homes also poses a very real public health threat,” said Jones. “Without water service, people cannot flush their toilets or wash their hands. Lack of adequate sanitation can cause diseases to spread, making people sick. The elderly, children and people with diabetes and other illnesses would be especially vulnerable. Extensive water shutoffs would be a public health crisis in the making.”
This article in ThinkProgress highlights the relationship betweeen water and housing. Many Right to Housing Alliance members are struggling with the fact that, with water often collected as rent, they can be evicted from their homes for not being able to afford rising water costs.
Join us Tuesday, April 7th at 6:30pm at 235 Holliday Street if you’ve received a water shut-off notice. Water AND Housing are human rights!
This City Could Become the Next Detroit
By Carl Gibson, posted April 4th, 2015
Starting this week, 25,000 households in Baltimore will suddenly lose their access to water for owing bills of $250 or more, with very little notice given and no public hearings.
Rita, a renter in Southeast Baltimore who asked to remain anonymous for this story in order to protect her two children from being taken away, told ThinkProgress she was served with a shutoff notice last week. Maryland law states that a child that is “neglected” may be taken out of his or her home and put into foster care. One characteristic of “neglect” as defined by the Maryland Department of Human Resources is a child with “consistently poor hygiene” that is “un-bathed, [having] unwashed or matted hair, noticeable body odor.”
“I love my kids, and I’d do anything for them,” Rita told ThinkProgress. “But if I turn on the shower or the sink and there’s no water, how can I give them a bath?”
Food and Water Watch researcher Mary Grant explained that making water unavailable to residents is a major health risk, and that if Baltimore were to deprive 25,000 households of water, diseases would have a high chance of propagating throughout densely-populated neighborhoods.
“There is direct risk associated with lack of access to water,” Grant told ThinkProgress. “When you lose your water service, you lose water to wash your hands to flush the toilet, there is risk of disease spreading.”
City officials like Department of Public Works director Rudy Chow claim that residents using water without paying are to blame for the $40 million in overdue water bills. In fact, the Baltimore Sun found more than a third of the unpaid bills stem from just 369 businesses, who owe $15 million in revenue, while government offices and nonprofits have outstanding water bills to the tune of $10 million. One of those businesses, RG Steel (now bankrupt) owes $7 million in delinquent water bills all by itself.
“It’s interesting that the city isn’t targeting those businesses first,” Grant said.
According to Grant, Baltimore has steadily increased water usage rates over the past three years by a total of 42 percent, once another 11 percent rate increase takes effect this July. The Baltimore Sun reported that the public works department elected to raise the rates in 2013, when 19,500 customers owed $29.5 million. While the city has pointed out that there are payment plans available for residents behind on water bills, Grant said the help is far too small to make any real difference for overdue households.
“There is low-income assistance, but it’s only a one-time payment of $161,” Grant said.
Approximately half of Baltimore’s 1.8 million residents rent their homes, and many are counting on property owners to promptly pay water bills. Even if a landlord is not making payments, Baltimore’s water department refuses to open new water accounts for anyone who isn’t a property owner. Jessica Lewis, co-founder of the Housing Rights Alliance, said landlords shifting water payment responsibilities to tenants is a “growing problem.”
“We have weekly tenants’ meetings here, and there’s never a meeting where someone isn’t talking about how high the water bills are,” Lewis said. “Tenants have a hard time challenging water bills when these burdens are shifted from the landlord to the tenant.”
Last year in Detroit, residents fought back against a similar plan to shut off water to customers with overdue bills. At one point, the United Nations stepped in and condemned the city’s water shutoff plan, taking the side of residents unable to pay increasingly high water bills.
“Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” the statement read.
Catarina de Albuquerque, a UN expert on the human right to water and sanitation, directly addressed the argument that Detroit Water and Sewerage Department officials proposed that residents who have the means but don’t pay deserve to lose their access to water.
“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” de Albuquerque said in the statement.
According to Jessica Lewis, Baltimore’s recent water shutoff initiative may be the follow-up to a failed effort that could have led to the privatization of Baltimore’s water last year. In August 2014, a group of Baltimore residents and community organizations formed the One Baltimore United coalition, which dedicated itself to fighting a proposed $500,000 consulting contract between the City of Baltimore and Veolia, a private water corporation.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Veolia’s proposal for an evaluation of the city’s aging water systems would ostensibly improve “operation and maintenance performance” while “reducing costs and enhancing operational efficiencies.” However, Lewis said that would have only paved the way to privatization.
“What happens is these studies then become proprietary information, and the city has to agree to privatizing some of its infrastructure for the repairs to be done,” Lewis said. “[The contract] was only shut down because of a strong public outcry.”
Baltimore’s crumbling water infrastructure is estimated to lose enough water to fill the city’s World Trade Center every day, about 20 percent of the total finished water revenue.
Residents and advocates are calling for the city to institute a moratorium on all water shutoffs until those served with notices have had a chance to have their side considered in public hearings. The city has yet to respond to protesters’ demands of a moratorium, and has not yet scheduled any public hearings.
“The city is trying to make the case that this is bad actors, but many people don’t have the resources to pay their water bill in this low wage economy,” Grant said. “We don’t want to get into a situation where people have to choose between food on their plate and water in their tap.”
Repeated calls to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office, the Baltimore Department of Public Works, and Baltimore City Council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young were not returned.
Carl Gibson is an independent journalist and activist. He co-founded anti-austerity group US Uncut in 2011 and is featured in the Sundance-selected documentary “We’re Not Broke.” He has been published in Salon, Washington Post, and Occupy.com. Follow him on Twitter at @uncutCG.