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Examining inequitable water debt in Chicago

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Header image courtesy of Elevate.

Chicago’s lowest income households are the most burdened with high water bills, paying almost 10% of their income to water, a threshold considered too high, with majority Black neighborhoods having water debt 10 times higher than majority white neighborhoods, according to a new, Joyce-funded report authored by Elevate Chicago and the Metropolitan Planning Council for the City of Chicago.

The City of Chicago Water Affordability Analysis examined millions of city residential water bills between 2015 and 2020, outlining how non-metered homes—concentrated in majority-Black neighborhoods—pay more for water annually than metered customers. In 2019, for example, non-metered customers paid $500 more annually than customers in metered homes. The report found that 20 percent of delinquent bills come from customers more than a year in arrears.

“Water bill affordability is a racial equity issue, with accounts in majority Black, Hispanic, and Asian-populated tracts less likely to be metered, more likely to have leaks…and facing on average a higher burden while using comparatively less water than accounts in majority white (non-Hispanic) tracts,” the report states.

The report also includes several other key findings designed to help the City of Chicago equitably address water affordability, bill burden, shutoffs, plumbing issues and customer service, including:

  • Multifamily buildings, particularly 2-5 unit buildings and 12+ unit buildings, see the highest rates of nonpayment and increases in debt over time, and 2-unit buildings have the highest average burden.
  • Because of unpaid balances accruing over time, payment arrangements are mostly insufficient to address nonpayment.
  • Other charges composing the water bill (garbage fee, taxes) contribute to high bills and should be factored into the city’s strategy to improve water affordability.

Among its other recommendations to the city, the report encourages enhanced outreach and enrollment in state and city water bill assistance programs, more flexible payment arrangements, and implementing universal metering for all residential accounts in Chicago.

Read more about water debt in Chicago from our grantee partners at WBEZ here.

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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