CITY HALL — The lead sponsor of an ordinance that would make permanent a ban on city water shutoffs and expand the city’s affordable billing program says he hopes his proposal, which aldermen were supportive of on Friday, is passed by the end of the year.
The City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy on Friday discussed Ald. Daniel La Spata’s (1st) proposed “Water for All” ordinance (O2021-413), which he introduced in January and which has since gained 14 cosponsors.
La Spata’s ordinance proposes to codify and make permanent the ban on water shutoffs due to non-payment; expand existing utility relief, including exempting some of the lowest earning households from making water payments; and protect Chicago’s water system from any future privatization.
Water is one of Chicago’s “greatest competitive advantages” and “it is doubtless that water is key to the economic health and success of Chicago for its foreseeable future,” La Spata said during Friday’s committee hearing.
And central to Friday’s discussion was whether Chicago will provide water to all residents in a way that is “accessible, affordable and healthy,” he said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised in the days before she was elected to end water shutoffs in Chicago, and the city’s Utility Billing Relief Program, which also offered discounted water rates for low-income payers, took effect in November 2019.
The existing Utility Billing Relief program offers a 50 percent discount on water bills to anyone who earns less than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate.
The Water for All ordinance proposes to extend the 50 percent discount to people who earn between 101 and 250 percent of the poverty rate. Residents between 51 and 100 percent of the poverty line would be eligible for a 75 percent discount, and people earning less than half the poverty rate would not be responsible for any payments.
La Spata told The Daily Line on Friday that “the notion to say there are families in Chicago that actually make that income should feel like an injustice to all of us” and absolving households earning less than half of the poverty rate would help in “taking one thing off their plate.”
A spokesperson for Lightfoot wrote in an email to The Daily Line on Friday that “Mayor Lightfoot has made access to clean, high quality drinking water for all Chicago residents a priority of her administration regardless of their ability to pay,”
But he must convince Lightfoot’s administration, which “does not view the Water for All ordinance as a viable alternative to the Utility Bill Relief program to increase water accessibility for our residents,” the spokesperson wrote. He added that the mayor’s office is talking with La Spata and water advocates “to identify additional opportunities to improve water affordability,” the spokesperson wrote.
The Utility Bill Relief program has “cut water utility bills in half for over 10,000 participants” since it was launched in April 2020, according to the mayor’s office.
La Spata told The Daily Line on Friday that the “values and aims” of advocates for the Water for All Ordinance and Lightfoot’s office are “in the same place” and continuing discussions will likely focus on “what they believe should happen in an aldermanic ordinance and a management ordinance.”
La Spata said he believes an aldermanic ordinance is “the right vehicle for expanding” the Utility Billing Relief program but he is “open to continued conversations.”
The aldermen said supporters “will be pushing for a vote in the next couple of months” and is hoping an agreement will be passed by the end of the year, when the existing Utility Billing Relief pilot is set to expire. La Spata said he has been asked to hold off on submitting a new version of the ordinance until a vote is scheduled.
Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy, a nonprofit organization focused on energy efficiency, said data from January 2015 to April 2020 her organization analyzed showed that during the past decade, water charges in Chicago have increased more than 100 percent, far outpacing residents’.
The burden of water bills is higher in majority-Black, Latinx and Asian census tracts than it is in majority white-populated tracts, Evens said. And households that “cannot afford to pay their water bills also have struggled for other necessities” and are making “trade-offs” in paying for food, medicine or utility bills, Evens told aldermen on Friday.
La Spata’s proposal “uses income-based brackets to create a credit system” ensuring everyone, including renters, can afford water and can “participate in the debt forgiveness plan when they meet the program requirements,” Emma Clouse of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights told aldermen.
The Water for All ordinance would also prohibit any future privatization of the city’s water system, including language that city leaders “may not sell, lease, transfer or outsource the operation or control of the Chicago Waterworks System.”
Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) said protecting the city’s water system against privatization is “one of the most important” portions of the proposal. Rodriguez said he would “absolutely oppose any of those efforts” to privatize the utility.
Including the prohibition on privatizing Chicago’s water system would show a “stance of values” and that the City Council stands behind the notion that the utility should not be shifted to a private company, Matt Cason, treasurer and policy chair for the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, told aldermen on Friday.
Incorporating the section into the ordinance would also create a “legislative hurdle should City Council ever attempt” to privatize the water system in the future, he said.
“The stance needs to be made, just in terms of making clear to everyone, including any potential future buyer who might try to seduce the city” with the promise of cash for a long-term agreement, Cason said.
The provision would prevent Chicago from “going down the route of so many other cities [in] taking that bad deal, taking what seems like a big amount of cash up front, and then that being ruined down the road,” Cason added.
The Water for All ordinance also includes:
- A requirement that the city’s Department of Water Management develop a “plan to ensure equitable and just implementation of capital improvements” to the city’s water infrastructure. The plan must be drawn up with the help of an “advisory committee” comprising labor unions, community groups and others, and it must include “provisions for local job training and employment opportunities” for low-income people.
- A requirement that the water management department and comptroller submit a quarterly report to the City Council on water shutoffs, as well as the number of new applicants to and existing users of the water-for-all tax credit program.
- A requirement that property owners who pass along water or sewer costs to their tenants must include “such requirement in that written lease” and the “precise method and formula” used to calculate water costs as well as the “average monthly consumption and costs of service” to the unit for water usage.