Policies favor homeowners, according to Northeastern University study.

In the absence of national data, local studies are filling the gap in understanding water affordability laws and policies. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

Some Massachusetts cities shut off water to enforce timely bill payment. Others place liens on the property that result in extra fees and can lead to foreclosure. Nearly all have water-bill assistance programs that target homeowners, the elderly, or disabled, but not specifically those who are low-income.

Those details come from a new Northeastern University study that investigates water affordability policies in a dozen Massachusetts cities. The cities, which include the 10 largest in the state, range in population from 670,000 people (Boston) to 40,000 (Chelsea).

In the absence of national data and because drinking water and sewer service is governed at the local and state level, studies like this one are presenting the clearest picture of the laws and policies that influence access to municipal water for poor households.

Martha Davis, a Northeastern University law professor, found that bill assistance policies and payment plans in Massachusetts cities favor homeowners. In state with significant racial disparities in home ownership and low home ownership in general, those policies result in skewed access to public assistance. Only two of the cities in the survey had home ownership rates above 50 percent. A separate study found the white home ownership rate in Boston, Cambridge, and Newton nearly twice the black home ownership rate.

“If these communities don’t anticipate the need to deal with inequality, they’ll be unprepared when the time comes,” Davis, the report’s lead author, told Circle of Blue. “It’s better to have a system in place. When it’s not a crisis they can implement policies that will help in the future.”

The future in Massachusetts looks a lot like the rest of the nation: rising water rates to pay for overhauling outdated infrastructure. Communities with high poverty rates and old water, sewer, and drainage systems are most exposed to the increase in costs and have the biggest challenges with affordability at the household level.

In addition to bill assistance policies, Davis and her team used public records requests to gather data on shutoffs and liens, two side effects of water rates that are growing faster than inflation.

Davis found that cities typically favored one approach or the other. Lowell, though it does allow for shutoffs, tends to use liens. Last year, the city of 110,000 people placed liens on 2,829 properties because of water debt, according to the report. Quincy, population 93,000, issued 2,555 liens in 2018. Those were the highest numbers in the study.

The two largest cities in the study — Boston and Springfield — take a different tack. Unlike Quincy, they disconnect water service to enforce bill payment. Combined, they shut off water to 1,500 residences in 2018.

National Picture Develops from Local Reports

The Massachusetts report is the latest examination of the influence of local and state laws on access to municipal drinking water. Earlier this year, the Center for Water Security and Cooperation, a research group, highlighted the role of late fees and penalties in Maryland towns as an obstacle to water service for poor households that fall behind on their bills. To turn off water or to reconnect service, municipalities charged between $10 and $100 dollars, an amount that can be difficult for some families to repay, argued Luke Wilson, a report co-author.

In California, meanwhile, Pacific Institute researchers found that water shutoff data is not tracked in a meticulous manner. Policies for customer notification, late fees, repayment plans, customer assistance, and the time between a missed payment and disconnection of service varied widely among utilities. Late fees and reconnection charges ranged from $12 to $166.

“Unlike water quality under the Safe Drinking Water Act, there hasn’t been a nationwide effort to collect data and enforce minimum standards on water affordability,” Laura Feinstein, author of the Pacific Institute report, told Circle of Blue. “But all these regional reports are finding the same basic trends: low-income families are spending a growing share of their budget on water, and policies to minimize shutoffs are at best scattershot and incomplete.”

Davis also discovered, in filing public records requests, that utilities did not have readily available data on the number of shutoffs or liens in a given year. “I suspected that that number would be easy to ascertain,” Davis said. “I was surprised to find that it was not.”

Lawmakers, at the urging of researchers and advocates, are starting to take notice of the information gap. Some are forcing utilities to keep more detailed records. Under a law signed last September, California utilities will be required, from February 2020, to post on their websites the number of shutoffs for inability to pay.

Democratic members of Congress have taken up the cause. Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, and Rep. Dan Kildee, whose Michigan district includes Flint, introduced the Water Justice Act last month. A provision in the legislation authorizes $2 billion a year to help poor families pay water and sewer bills. Included in that aid is assistance with repairing leaks and installing water-efficient faucets and showerheads.

In February, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Rep. Brenda Lawrence, of Michigan, introduced the WATER Act. The bill orders the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to draft a study that, among other affordability-related issues, gauges the availability of data on water shutoffs due to unpaid bills.

Past attempts in Congress to pass water affordability legislation stalled. The current crop of bills also faces a long road. Neither the Water Justice Act nor the WATER Act has attracted more than a handful of sponsors, and neither has moved out of committee.