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The move will help tens of thousands who are struggling with rapidly increasing bills, but there is still work to be done to make Chicago’s water affordable, says organizer Jenya Polozova

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, was sworn in as Chicago’s mayor on Monday, becoming the first Black woman and openly queer person to hold the position. And she’s already making big promises. Days before she was sworn in, after reading briefings from her transition team, Lightfoot pledged that the city will eliminate water shutoffs, a practice that’s affected tens of thousands of Chicago families who are struggling to pay their increasing water bills.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: Water is a basic, basic human right. If you’re turning off water, you are effectively evicting people. And we know that that disproportionately affects low income people of color who are going to be shut off from water services.

DHARNA NOOR: The price of water in Chicago has tripled in the last decade.

Here to talk about this is Jenya Polozova, who is Food and Water Watch’s Midwest organizer. Thank you so much for joining me, Jenya.

JENYA POLOZOVA: Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So this comes after earlier this year WBEC and American Public Media put out an investigation that found that some 150,000 households have gotten water shutoff notices in the past 12 years in Chicago. Of course, disproportionately Black and Latinx families. Just to put this in perspective, talk about what happens when a family gets one of these notices. How behind on your bills do you have to be to get one? How are families affected by shutoffs? How do you get your water turned back on?

JENYA POLOZOVA: Yeah. Once families are unable to pay, the water department will shut their water off. And the timing of the reconnection can vary, but it mainly depends on your ability to pay the bill. So for example, there’s a lot of different barriers that families have to jump through to get their water reconnected. There’s a $40 fee to reinstall water services. In order to access the reconnection of their water residents are also charged a 1.25 percent penalty of the amount owed. And also, if they want to get on a payment plan in order to repay that water bill, they have to come up with half that money owed in order to receive a payment plan. They can pay 25 percent if they can prove that they’re disabled or elderly. But some people haven’t been able to afford even that. So illegal reconnections have actually outpaced legal reconnections in the past six years. There’s been over 60,000 illegal reconnections. And if you’re caught you have to pay a $500 fee to the water department.

DHARNA NOOR: And that’s on top of the price of water, which has tripled, again, in the past decade. Which is, I guess, a part of why so many people are getting their water shut off for non-payment. How does Chicago justify that rapidly increasing rate? Is the city transparent at all about what they need that increased revenue for, or where it’s going?

JENYA POLOZOVA: Somewhat. A lot of it has to do with outdated water infrastructure. So to put that into perspective, even though we live next to one of the largest sources of water in the United States, we pay more for water than the city of Phoenix, that pipes its water from 300 miles away. So it’s not the water that’s expensive, but the cost of maintaining our water infrastructure. And Chicago required the use of lead service lines between street names and homes until Congress banned the practice in 1986. Much of our water infrastructure is decades old and needs to be replaced.

The other issue is that there has been a huge decline in federal support for water infrastructure that has dropped by 70 percent since the 1970s. And that places the burden on municipalities like Chicago to cover the costs of improving the water infrastructure. So there was a first rate hike in 2011 that was phased in over several years with the goal of improving water infrastructure. The second rate hike, which began in 2016, was actually to generate money for the city’s pension fund. So the city has been transparent, somewhat, in terms of what we need that money for.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. I should say part of the reason that I’m so interested in this is that I’ve been covering water affordability here in Baltimore. And a common practice here has been issuing liens on people’s homes over unpaid water bills. Those liens get sold at annual tax sales, so people can lose their homes. And the Department of Public Works says that that’s really important and an important source of revenue, because they need, again, funding to pay for infrastructure repairs. That practice was just banned, and some city officials who control water, for instance, were opposed to that, because they say that they’d be losing an important source of revenue. Are you encountering that kind of pushback, too? Are city officials concerned that this ban on water shutoffs would negatively impact the city financially, because they have one less way to get people to pay their bills?

JENYA POLOZOVA: That was an initial concern, but actually, last summer we did a couple of hearings for many members of the Chicago City Council. We had Roger Colton, who’s our utility expert, come in and talk about how people really can’t pay the water–we can’t generate revenue on bills that people cannot afford to pay. And we actually advocated for an income-based billing programs so that people can at least pay a portion of the bill. But when the city levies these really high water bills, when the city shuts off people’s water, it has to spend more money on trying to get people to pay their fines, sending people out to legally reconnect the water service. So we actually have encountered that argument, but don’t find it to be a viable argument.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, Roger Colton actually did a similar study of Baltimore. And I know that Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa introduced an ordinance a couple of years ago that would, again, cap water bills for low income households in Chicago. Talk about what Mayor Lori Lightfoot could do to support that, as she says that she, of course, thinks that water is a human right and should be affordable to all Chicagoans.

JENYA POLOZOVA: So there are two particular pieces of the ordinance that we think Mayor Lightfoot could support. So one of the pieces is it would establish a water for all program that would provide financial relief to low income households. So based on how much money they receive annually, they can get a credit back on their water bill either once a year twice a year. The other piece of that bill that we believe Mayor Lightfoot could support is that it requires a plan to ensure there is equitable and just implementation of capital improvements to the water system, making sure that money is going to the areas that have been neglected in the past. And this plan would be developed collaboratively with an advisory board of stakeholders. This can include public health agencies, organizations, labor unions, and nonprofit organizations to ensure that this plan is carried out. So we think it’s really, really great that Mayor Lightfoot has taken this great step to end water shutoffs in Chicago, but we still need to implement income-based billing to ensure that the rising water rates aren’t disproportionately impacting low income communities in Chicago.

DHARNA NOOR: And once this ban goes into effect are there other collections methods that you think that the city might use to try to get people to pay these high bills?

JENYA POLOZOVA: From my understanding, penalties could still be implemented. So for example, right now the city has over $7 million in unpaid fines and fees. Nearly $2 million of those penalties were issued in the city’s 10-4 zip code. So from my understanding that’s one of the collection methods the city could use to try to get people to pay their water bills quicker.

DHARNA NOOR: And of course, this isn’t just a problem in Chicago. Water bills are climbing all across the country. And a study from your organization, from Food and Water Watch, showed that an estimated 15 million Americans actually got their water shut off because of nonpayment a few years ago, in 2016. Could this promise from Mayor Lightfoot sort of spark other ones? Could we see national reverberations of this?

JENYA POLOZOVA: I definitely hope so, and I especially hope this will bolster the case for water affordability legislation in Detroit and other Midwest cities like Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Columbus, that are in proximity to Great Lakes but whose water bills are rising nonetheless. For example, something like 17,000 households in Detroit had their water shut off last year. To sort of put it in perspective in Chicago, we’ve also seen that Philadelphia has implemented an income-based affordability program, that Baltimore has banned water privatization. And those examples have been really encouraging in our conversations when we talked to aldermen organizations. So we certainly hope that Chicago can do the same for other cities.

DHARNA NOOR: And, lastly, what exactly would Mayor Lightfoot have to do to make good on this promise? Like, what processes would she have to go through through the city’s government to actually ensure that this becomes a reality?

JENYA POLOZOVA: So I can’t say I’m entirely sure on what that process would take, but given that the water department is under Mayor Lightfoot’s control, we hope that she can implement a water affordability program within the water department and ensure that there is equitable and just implementation of capital improvements. And Mayor Lightfoot can also support the water for all ordinance when Alderman Rosa introduces it later this year.

DHARNA NOOR: OK. Thank you so much for joining us. And as we see how Mayor Lightfoot makes good on this promise, we’d love to talk to you again, so keep us posted.

JENYA POLOZOVA: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.