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Chicago will help low-income homeowners struggling with utility bills

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Clean water is basic human right for all residents, officials said.

A building with a mural of people smiling.
A building on the West Side.
Carmen Troesser

For low-income homeowners in Chicago, utility bills are often barriers to accessing clean water and other necessities. A new reform which affects about 20,000 homeowners will ensure those residents don’t get their water shut off because of late payments and help them pay utility bills.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed budget includes the Utility Relief Billing program, which will provide resources and financial help to homeowners struggling to pay for water, electricity, and gas. This program will go into effect March 2020, according to the mayor’s office.

Low-income residents will be able to apply to the city program to get a reduced rate on their water-sewer bills and taxes without facing past payment penalties or worrying about debt collection. After a year of on-time payments, the city will clear any past debt. The lower payments could mean homeowners pay a bill from $53 to 33 per month.

The cost of water for homeowners has increased by 166 percent since 2011, according to the city. In that same time period, water utility bill debt has increased by 300 percent mainly concentrated on the South and West Side neighborhoods.

It’s something elderly Chicagoans struggle with and sometimes is the reason they must leave the city, said Mary Anderson, Chicago director of AARP.

“They have economic pressures on them that are forcing them out of them out of the city. One of the number on causes of that are utility bills, electric bills, astronomical natural gas bills, and water and sewer bills,” said Anderson. “Too many older adults in Chicago are having to choose between groceries, life saving medicine, and whether they are going to pay that water bill.”

By removing these barriers for struggling homeowners and eliminating the practice of water shutoffs, the new policy helps residents in historically disinvested neighborhoods.

“Every institution must adopt a racial equity framework to correct for unintended and unfair consequences,” said Danielle Gallet, director of water resources for the Metropolitan Planning Council. “This critical reform will ensure water service as a basic human right, advance equity, and help close the racial wealth gap.”

The reform was a policy suggestion from MPC detailed in a 2019 Mayoral Briefing Book. Lightfoot has implemented several strategies based on recommendations from MPC to create a more equitable city government, the organization has also authored a detailed report entitled The Cost of Segregation. The mayor also hired the organization’s vice president to lead the city’s Department of Housing.

Earlier this year, Lightfoot overhauled the city’s vehicle ticketing, debt collection, and city sticker process. The high cost of minor violations, which unfairly targeted low-income, black residents, sent some Chicagoans into debilitating debt.

Eventually, the Utility Billing Relief program will move all households, using meters or not, to a monthly billing schedule. This aims to help residents track their water usage and budget better.