They shut his water off over an unpaid bill – and then a fire broke out

Nina Lakhani in Cleveland

Albert Pickett returned to live in his childhood home after his mother died of Alzheimer’s, and discovered that she’d got behind with water bills during the last few years of her life.

Pickett, 60, inherited the debts and applied to get on to a repayment plan, but the water department refused as he didn’t have the money, several hundred dollars, required as a deposit.

Cleveland Water didn’t inform Pickett, who lives off disability benefits, about his right to appeal – instead, they turned off the taps in 2013. Then, in 2016 they put a legal claim known as a lien on the house because of the overdue bill which had accrued penalties and interest.

The house was then placed in foreclosure.

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In order to continue living at home, Pickett borrowed buckets of water to flush the toilet, showered when he could at friend’s homes, and spent part of his $700 or so monthly benefits on bottled water to drink and to take his medication.

Without running water, he was no longer able to care for his grandchildren at weekends.

“Without water you can’t do anything. I lost my family, my wellbeing, my self-esteem. It was humiliating, like I was less than human,” Pickett told the Guardian from East Cleveland, a low-income, predominantly black, neighborhood.

Nationwide, Americans like Pickett face punitive measures as they struggle to afford water bills and clear mounting debts, according to an investigation by the Guardian published last week. In a 12-city study, including Cleveland, bills increased by an average of 80% between 2010 and 2018.

The rising water costs in Cleveland, OH

For Pickett, the nightmare got worse.

In 2018, he was admitted to a nursing facility after suffering a major stroke and spine fracture. He was discharged after several months of rehab in July 2019, but at home he struggled to carry the water he needed due to mobility and balance issues which had left him walking with a frame.

His family tried to help: Pickett’s sister took out a several-thousand-dollar loan to clear water and tax debts in order to save the house from foreclosure, but the utility again refused to reconnect service, claiming he still owed $2,800 despite having had no running water since 2013.

In October last year, a small fire broke out in Pickett’s home. He tried to douse the small flames with his feet, but without running water the fire grew, and by the time firefighters arrived, the house was partially destroyed.

Pickett, whose health remains precarious, has since been forced to couch surf or sleep in his car.

“The house was all I had. I lost everything, how can they deny people a basic necessity like water? It isn’t right. Sometimes I feel like just giving up,” said Pickett, tearful. The vast majority of his personal belongings were destroyed in the fire.

Structural racism

In Cuyahoga county, where Cleveland is located, more than 11,000 water lines were placed on properties between 2014 and 2018, sometimes for unpaid bills of just $300, according to the NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund (LDF), which is suing the city. The punitive practice, which increases the risk of eviction and foreclosure, is significantly more common in majority-black neighborhoods, even when comparing neighborhoods with the same average income.

“Liens are a blunt debt collection tool … the use for water debt is draconian and outrageous,” said Olivia Wein, an attorney representing low-income clients with the Washington-based National Consumer Law Center.

The Cleveland water department also disconnects thousands of so-called delinquent customers every year – those who can’t afford to pay – often targeting clusters of households with little regard for the size of the overdue balance, with little or no notice, and without adequate recourse even when customers are grossly overcharged, the LDF claims.

“It’s a widespread issue which has a significantly disproportionate impact on black residents who are losing their homes … it’s another horrifying story about racial segregation,” said Coty Montag, the civil rights lawyer who filed the lawsuit last December.

Since then almost a hundred residents have called with stories about egregious and unaffordable bills, which has left a disproportionately high number of African American households without water or facing the threat of foreclosure.

The court is yet to rule on the city’s motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.

Cleveland Water declined to comment on the lawsuit, or any individual cases, but said in a statement that it was committed to making its water operations “more equitable”.

Racial injustice

America’s current water crisis is rooted in historic systemic racism according to WaterColor: a study of race and water affordability in America’s cities by the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP LDF.

Today, communities of colour and Native Americans still bear the brunt of environmental inequalities including disproportionate exposure to toxic water, lack of indoor plumbing and unaffordable bills.

In rust belt cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit – where millions of African Americans settled during the great migration from the south – the ageing water systems were designed to serve far bigger populations and industrial sectors.

In Cleveland, the population has fallen by almost 60% since its peak in the 1950s. Nevertheless, the water pipes must still be maintained despite the decline in paying customers.

As a result, the average water and sewage bill has doubled over the past decade to $1,642 in 2018 – the second highest of the 12 cities analysed by the Guardian – making it virtually impossible for many low-income residents to keep up with payments.

In fact, in 2018 three-quarters of low income Cleveland residents lived in neighbourhoods where the average bill was unaffordable – compared with 56% in 2010. And a third of these folks faced bills exceeding 12% of household income.

The % of residents by income group living in neighbourhoods with unaffordable (>4%) water bills in Cleveland

In fact, Cleveland’s high poverty rate means 45% of all residents in 2018 lived in neighbourhoods with unaffordable bills – the highest proportion among the cities analysed. By 2030, a staggering 56% of all Clevelanders will face unaffordable water and sewage if bills continue to rise at the current rate.

Advocates say that the city’s rate hikes have failed to consider affordability, and complaints about billing glitches go back years.

“It’s like screaming into the void and facing down an administrative machine, it’s not clear what the rules are which makes it impossible to do the right thing … the decisions are arbitrary and discriminatory,” said Rebecca Maurer, a Cleveland-based lawyer assisting the LDF.

‘I can’t afford water’

Keyonna Johnson, 30, bought her home in 2010, and within a couple of years the water and sewage bills started rising – resulting in unaffordable bills even when the place was empty and water disconnected due to a burst pipe.

She negotiated a payment plan, but couldn’t keep up and in 2015 Cleveland Water placed a lien on Johnson’s home for an overdue bill totaling $1,355. A second lien worth $2,197 was attached a couple of years later. After accumulating fines and interest, the debt on the liens is currently about $7,000, plus what she still owes the water department.

In addition to the constant threat of foreclosure, Johnson’s water has been shut off several times. In April, she received another disconnection notice for a $2,685 unpaid sewer bill; she also currently owes about $1,500 for water.

Johnson is a single mother with two jobs, but simply cannot afford the available payment plan which would clear her debts, as it doesn’t take into account her income.

“I always pay my son’s childcare, energy bills and gas for my car so I can get to work, but every month I have to make choices, it’s so stressful. The water has been going up and up for years, all we use it for is to shower, drink and cook, but it’s unaffordable. I try but sometimes I just can’t pay it, and then I can’t catch up,” said Johnson, a nursing assistant and part-time food delivery worker.

Last year, Johnson filed for bankruptcy in part due to financial hardship caused by unaffordable water bills, but this didn’t alter the water debt or liens.

“I’m on the edge of losing my home, maybe that’s my only option. I can’t afford the water.”

In a joint statement, the city and Cleveland Water said: “We strongly believe all of our customers deserve to have safe, quality water that’s also affordable and have taken multiple actions to make that happen … We implemented 0% rate increases in 2016, 2017 and 2018, bill the first 1,500 gallons of water each month at a discounted rate, offer multiple discount programs to assist customers, and provide payment plans to help customers who are behind on payments.”

What’s happening in Cleveland isn’t an anomaly.

For years, Baltimore’s water department was criticized for above-inflation price hikes, safety failures, billing mishaps and the widespread use of liens which disproportionately penalized the city’s black majority.

Baltimore disconnected 6,600 households for non-payment between 2015 and 2016, and sold liens to about 1,700 owner-occupied homes at tax sales due to unpaid water bills between 2015 and 2017, according to research by advocacy group Food and Water Watch (FWW).

Kimberly Armstrong’s monthly mortgage payments doubled after her lender paid off two water liens to save the house, that also put her in negative escrow.

It’s unclear why, but Armstrong, 51, who works for a not-for-profit, still owes the utility $7,300. She said: “I have been fighting this for five years, it’s exhausting, and it’s not just me, it’s all over the city.”

A spokeswoman for the city’s department of public works said it did not comment on individual accounts.

Hopes of change

Amid mounting injustices like Armstrong’s, campaigners forced Baltimore to radically change course.

In 2018, Baltimore became the first major city to ban water privatization after 77% of voters approved a charter amendment declaring the water system to be a public asset. According to one study, private utilities charged customers on average 59% more than public utilities.

Then, a moratorium on tax sales for water debt was passed in 2019 after it was exposed that homes and places of worship were being sent to auction for bills as low as $350.

City officials also passed the widely lauded Water Accountability and Equity Act, which created a new programme to discount bills based on affordability, with a guarantee that the poorest residents, those living under 50% of the FPL, would pay no more than 1% of their income for water. Baltimore’s legislation also creates a pathway out of water debt, which anecdotal evidence shows can saddle generations, with outstanding balances forgiven after 12 monthly payments.

Income-based plans make social and business sense, according to Roger Colton, the economist commissioned by the Guardian to analyse 12 cities. “Charging customers what they can afford to pay will increase revenue.”

But, a last-minute request by the outgoing mayor threatens to delay implementation of the affordable bills scheme by a year.

“Baltimore has the opportunity to become a model for cities across the country, to correct the wrongs and address this environmental injustice that disproportionately impacts brown and black communities. Any delay will hit the city’s most vulnerable people hardest; water affordability is urgent.”

  • Albert Pickett, Keyonna Johnson and Jarome Montgomery are plaintiffs in the LDF lawsuit