Cities struggling with unpaid water bills could learn from Philadelphia's new approach
Last year, more than 27,000 Detroit homes had water shut off because of what the city says were unpaid bills. In some neighborhoods, one in five homes lost water access.
In 2014, the cash-strapped city started getting tough on people who couldn’t keep up with paying for water. City officials predicted the shutoffs would taper off as residents got on payment plans and bills started being paid, but Bridge Magazine reportsresidential shutoffs last year rose 18% over the previous year.
Could the Motor City learn something from the City of Brotherly Love?
Robert Ballenger, an attorney for Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia legal aid organization that fights for low-income families in the city, joined Stateside to discuss a new program the Philadelphia Water Department launched this month to make water more affordable for low-income families.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Ballenger said. “It is [one-of-a-kind] in the context of water utility service, but in the context of gas and electric service they have these programs already.”
The Tiered Assistance Program (TAP) bases water rates on income, not usage. Anyone below 150% of the poverty line, approximately $36,000 for a family of four, can get a water bill calculated at 2-3% of their gross monthly income. A low-income household of 2.5 people might see its monthly water bill drop from over $70 a month to around $45. In addition, overdue payments are frozen and can potentially be forgiven if participants complete regular payments.
According to Ballenger, customers who enroll in affordable bill programs have higher bill coverage rates.
“That means they’re paying more of their bills,” he said. “We want to get them onto the path of compliance.”
Ballenger said the city will release data on how the program performs, and other cities across the country would do well to take note.
“I think there’s an opportunity here to learn from this model, see it how it works,” he said. “The framework here I think is really sound, and one that will benefit a lot of people.”