Excerpts from the article:

“Affordability plans for water services can be found in multiple cities, like Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland. In some states, lawmakers have implemented similar, but not identical, protections, largely in response to news stories on tax lien sales. Since 2007, all taxing authorities in Rhode Island have been required to notify Rhode Island Housing of intended lien sales, after the eviction of an 81-year-old woman, stemming from a $474 sewage bill, not long before Christmas. Last year, D.C. passed a law that precludes the sale of liens under $2,500. Maryland’s legislature restricted Baltimore from pursuing tax lien sales under $750 this past April. The twin purposes behind Philly’s new water bill collections protections reflect how cities are re-approaching these issues, as well as a heightened awareness after Detroit’s mass water shutoffs and foreclosures.”

“You can really destabilize neighborhoods if [collections] is the only thing you’re looking at.”
-Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanche

“Mary Grant, a researcher at Food and Water Watch, says preventing home foreclosure over unpaid water bills is a best practice all local governments should consider: “Cities don’t have to send water and sewer debt over to the tax roll. That’s a policy that cities opt into doing.”  Efforts to improve finances, says Grant, shouldn’t focus on struggling residents when there are better alternatives. “A city water utility needs to look at its rate structure in order to see that costs are allocated equitably. [Many cities have] a declining block rate structure, so industrial users and commercial accounts are actually paying a lower rate, because they use larger volume than what households are paying. To address that would be one way to raise additional revenue.”

Prohibiting water shutoffs for low-income homeowners and renters is another best practice, says Grant. While water shutoffs in Detroit spurred a public outcry, she points out, several other cities are cutting off water by the thousands. Buzzfeed culled some numbers on this back in April: “Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and San Diego shut off between 14,000 (Los Angeles) and 26,000 (San Diego) properties last year.”

The new Philadelphia bill does not bar termination of water service for the city’s poorest residents completely. It does allow for assistance program enrollees to recalculate their payments at any time, so the legislation’s capacity to save residents in deep poverty from shutoffs will be defined as the city develops pricing formulas in the coming months.”

“Quinones-Sanchez’s office examined water affordability programs around the country while working on the legislation. They found a pattern of increased collections after implementation. In other words, if people have the option of paying what they can, fewer will skip payments.  “That’s what you want. You want an efficient system. You want us to spend less time in collections and more time in infrastructure,” says Quinones-Sanchez. Attention can hopefully shift, she adds, from revenue to public safety. “We believe this gets at both.”

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