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Water rates in Baltimore have been skyrocketing, more than tripling since 2000–and a $500 unpaid water bill could cost residents their homes
TAYA GRAHAM: Water rates in Baltimore City have risen exponentially. FEMALE SPEAKER: Water rates have been skyrocketing in Baltimore since 2008, actually more than tripled. TAYA GRAHAM: But advocates say programs to help people keep up with the rising costs are inadequate. In fact, in Baltimore, unlike other cities, you can still lose your home over a $500 unpaid water bill. Which is way people gathered at Red Emma’s for a panel to discuss ways to make water more affordable. KOMAL VAIDYA: Philadelphia, a very similar city in terms of the methods that they used in the past to collect the water bills and the programs that they offer, poverty, poverty data, they actually implemented the nation’s first income-based water billing program. We should do that here in Baltimore. TAYA GRAHAM: Among the panel members was Real News producer Eddie Conway who spoke at length about how Wall Street greed has cost city water customers millions of dollars. Also on hand was State Delegate Mary Washington who talked about her efforts to get a law passed which would impose a one year moratorium on water bill liens. MARY WASHINGTON: With this coalition, we put in three pieces of legislation: one was to ban shut offs for seniors and people in low income. Two, it was to ban moratorium on tax sale foreclosures which by the way, that bill passed the House, saying that there’d be a State wide one year moratorium on the sale of anybody’s home for an unpaid water bill. It did not get through … Yeah that’s a good thing. That was progress. CROWD: Woo! MARY WASHINGTON: However, the Maryland Senate did not move that bill out. It came outta the house but the Maryland Senate kept it in a drawer. Then we also established and created the Water Affordability Program which you’re actually going to hear about more, but those three pieces of legislation were directly designed to mitigate the negative impact of unpaid water bills, high monthly water bills have in our city. FEMALE SPEAKER: Thank you. EDDIE CONWAY: The problem is, the city invested in junk bonds before 2008 and they invested water money in that, and they invested for the reason of doing infrastructure repairs, and now the bill has come due and just … Recently the city had to pay $50 million in interest to Wall Street. They also had to pay over $40-some million in penalties to Wall Street. So a lot of the money that’s being put on the backs of homeowners, low income families, and renters is actually going to the banks up at Wall Street right now. That’s the kind of deals this city had made. Somebody, some doctor said, “Well, we have to do this because the city owes $40 million and people aren’t paying their water bills.” And research shows that $15 million are actually money owed from the residents. Another $15 million are owed by corporations and businesses here in the city that’s not paying their water bills, not being threatened, not having their businesses or properties sold, and another $10 million of that $40 million actually belongs to the city and non-profits here in this city that’s also not paying their water bill. Out of that $40 million that they’re putting on the backs of the citizens, only $15 million is citizens debts. The other $25 million is the city and city corporate partners and buddies, you know. It’s a disproportionate penalty on poor people and people in the black community in particular. Yes, it’s structural racism and it has always operated like that, continues to operate like that, but when you chase the money, it ends up at Chase Manhattan, ends up in New York, and it ends up in the stock market. That itself is modern day slavery. AUDIENCE MEMBER: So I wonder if the problem might really be the city’s structural tendency to get everything from real estate which of course, then, creates problems where you’re gonna have abandoned buildings because nobody really wants to deal with “Pay for this. Pay for this. Pay for this.” And it’s just like never ending. It’s like what do they stay up at night trying to figure the next way they can bill you? AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m wondering about, in addition to, the inside strategies because I’m, for one, not trustful of the city council or the mayor’s office to really create wholehearted, full solutions, transform their solutions to some type of problems. What are folks thinking about outside strategies? Are people in this organization, these organizations, concerning crowdfunding to prevent these things from happening now. We know the cost of an eviction, the cost of homelessness far exceeds the average bill of $500 to $600, right? We could be crowdfunding with their community like folks in Detroit had done to help solve these things right now. The other thing is, about people putting their bodies on the line to help stop these shutoffs. People who are not as vulnerable to lockups and to arrests as some of you are all here today, putting your bodies on the line to stand up and say, “Bring media attention to the realities of this injustice [inaudible].” So the question is about outside strategies. I’m just distrustful of the state of the city to actually solve these types of longstanding issues. EDDIE CONWAY: You know one of the things that I’ve seen that Occupy Wall Street did was that after it got pushed out of the places it occupied, it went on to help deal with debts: medical debts, housing debts, foreclosure, in some cases they surrounded the properties, in other cases they raised money. They found innovative ways to do it. We could do that here in the city and I always say, if you, if you have resources, if you have skill sets, if you have good clean records, then get in there and help people that don’t have those things. TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News in Baltimore City, Maryland.