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Can’t Afford Your Water Bill? New City Program Offers Relief To Low-Income Families

The program provides residents with reduced water, sewer and water-sewer taxes, as well as debt relief after a year of payments.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at the reopening of the Merlo Library Branch in July.
Heidi Zieger/Chicago Mayor's Office
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DOWNTOWN — It’s a vicious cycle. People miss one utility bill, pay to get the water turned back on then have to deal with months of late fees and missed payments.

The cycle is too familiar to many low-income Chicagoans, but a new city program will offer those families lasting debt relief.

The Chicago Utility Billing Relief Program will reduced water, sewer and water-sewer payments for eligible residents. If all reduced payments are made on time for a year, all previous debts will be eliminated, according to city officials.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, City Comptroller Reshma Soni and CEO of the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County Harold Rice announced the initiative Monday.

“Thanks to this program, Chicago’s families and communities will now have a path forward towards compliance on payments, as well as the opportunity for total debt forgiveness, helping us build a Chicago that is more equitable, more inclusive, and more hopeful for generations to come,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

To qualify, residents must own a single family home or two-flat and meet the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program eligibility guidelines, which can be found here. Residents can apply for the Utility Billing Relief Program on here.

The utility relief program did a “soft launch” in April to enroll more than 3,000 people, according to the city.

Debt from unpaid utility bills has increased significantly — by nearly 300 percent — over roughly the last decade, according to Lightfoot’s office. Residents owe more than $330 million in this type of debt.

“The (relief) program is another example of our pursuit to find solutions to reform regressive policies that have disproportionately impacted our most vulnerable residents,” Soni said in a statement. 

“We’ve made progress in lifting the burden of debt borne from antiquated practices that led to income inequities, and the (relief) program builds on these efforts, especially now when so many Chicago residents are crushed under the economic strains of the COVID-19 crisis.”

This is the latest effort to overhaul city ticketing and fining, which disproportionately impacts low-income people of color on the South and West sides, a WBEZ/ProPublica investigation found. The city let people clear their sticker ticket debt and ended driver’s license suspension for non-driving violations as well.

The release noted that the city will focus on collecting utility bills “from those who can most afford it.”

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