U.S. Civil Rights Commission Advisers File Report on Water Inequity in Massachusetts

Report approaches water access and affordability as civil rights issues.

A report to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated water access and affordability in Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons user Dejan Krsmanovic

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

Amid rising municipal water rates and a pandemic that is worsening inequality, a U.S. civil rights advisory committee report argues that Massachusetts should adopt new policies and standards that ensure affordable drinking water access for all.

“Water access should be part of what people look at when they look at civil rights,” said Martha Davis, a Northeastern University law professor who served on the advisory committee.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was established by Congress in 1957 to investigate claims of discrimination, assess the equity of laws, and submit recommendations to policymakers. Advisory committees in each state and the District of Columbia act as the commission’s sentries, highlighting emerging issues and issuing reports on important and timely matters.

The Massachusetts Advisory Committee is the first state committee to issue a report on water access and affordability. The commission welcomed the findings, according to Angelia Rorison, its communications director.

“Through original research and hearings conducted by the Committee the report’s recommendations provide a roadmap for getting ahead of this impending crisis in water access, before more lives are shattered by the inability to afford this fundamental human right and basic necessity,” Rorison wrote in an email to Circle of Blue.

The committee’s report presented eight recommendations to the commission.

Three of the recommendations seek to level the playing field for renters, who do not enjoy the same access to water-bill discounts as homeowners. The committee suggests that renters, who generally do not directly pay the water bill, be eligible for subsidies to offset the cost of water. The committee also argues that renters should be able to halt the disconnection of water service if their landlord failed to pay the bill.

Davis told Circle of Blue that renters were a particular concern for the committee. In Massachusetts, a third of white households do not own the home they live in. But 73 percent of Hispanic households and 65 percent of Black households are renters. Because of these structural inequalities, water-discount policies that privilege homeowners have disproportionate benefits for white households.

Massachusetts has had a statewide assistance program for water and sewer bills in place since the 1990s. But the program was last funded in 2003.

On the regulatory side, the committee recommended that state regulators employ a firmer hand over the operations of municipal water utilities, extending some of the same requirements that apply to investor-owned gas, electric, and water utilities. That includes review of rate increases and establishing programs to forgive customer debt.

The committee also suggested that utilities be required to gather data on the demographic characteristics of households where water is disconnected or that have liens are placed on the account for unpaid bills. Because little of this demographic data is collected, it is difficult to understand the scope of the problem and whether there is racial bias in the use of shutoffs or access to payment plans, Davis said.

“We just don’t know who is getting shut off, who is getting discounts, and who is on a payment plan,” said Davis, who noted the committee’s surprise at the lack of data.

Lastly, the committee recommends that the state subsidize the installation of water-conserving toilets and the repair of leaking pipes, both actions that would reduce water use and lower household bills.

Davis said that other state civil rights advisory committees are interested in water affordability. She hopes that the report will influence committee members in states like Maryland that are considering taking up the topic.

In the meantime, the Massachusetts committee members are distributing the report to state and local officials.

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