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Chicago’s Water-For-All Ordinance: What it could mean for the future of Chicago

Posted on September 10, 2021 by
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by Amy Heldman

With Chicago located right on Lake Michigan’s border, it comes as a shock to many that although we have this tremendous body of water in our backyard, many do not have access to running water.  Skyrocketing water prices in Chicago have left many without access to the very thing that we need to keep us healthy and safe especially during the pandemic..

A 2019 investigation by WBEZ and American Public Media found that the cost of water in Chicago has tripled over the last decade, which was the highest rate as compared to six other Great Lakes cities examined in the investigation. Since 2007, Chicago’s water department has also sent more than 150,000 water shutoff notices. About 40 percent of those water shutoffs were located in 5 of Chicago’s poorest zip codes concentrated on the South and West Sides where residents are primarily low-income, black, and Latinx. 

One attempt to combat this human rights violation is the “Water-For-All” Ordinance. After failing to pass in 2017, the Water-For-All Ordinance, reintroduced in 2019, offers both homeowners and tenants income-based credits toward their utility bills, regardless of their current citizenship status. It would also ban water shut-offs and tax foreclosures, as well as prohibit any privatization of the city’s water supply. Eligibility would be both homeowners and tenants whose annual household income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.  This comprehensive approach is gaining support with 30 percent of  Aldermen in favor.

The pandemic exposed the water access inequities happening in Chicago and the urgency to remedy the problems. In an interview conducted by María Inés Zamudio, Vernal Green explains that a fire hydrant is currently his only source of water.  He carries his bottle of water back to his apartment where he uses it to bathe, wash dishes, and flush the toilet. Over two years ago water was shut off to repair a burst pipe, but the pipe was never fixed nor water service restored to his apartment. Residents like Mr. Green do not have the option of enrolling in a plan to get their water restored because they have no bills in their name. They count on their landlords to pay the city for water services. When their landlord does not settle an outstanding debt with the city, they are left with no water, in the midst of a pandemic. 

A similar provision in Chicago is the Utility Billing Relief (UBR) program, which was launched in April by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. It offers those qualifying a flat 50 percent discount on their utility bills and also gives bill forgiveness after one completed year of on-time payments. Jeff Whitelow with the Chicago Water Alliance has been assisting residents with UBR program enrollment, but many people are simply not eligible to participate because of income threshold limits and not owning their homes.

The Water-For-All Ordinance would help make Chicago water a public good. Unlike the UBR program, the proposed ordinance  encompasses all residents. It would allow all residents to afford and access drinking water that before was not possible. It is time to address water as a fundamental human right, not as a commodity to be sold. 

If you would like to show your support for the ordinance, tell your Chicago City Council member to work with their colleagues to swiftly pass the Water-For-All ordinance by submitting your comments through Freshwater Future’s quick and easy online action form HERE.

To learn more about the City of Chicago’s Utility Billing Relief (UBR) program, visit Chicago Water Alliance online HERE. For additional information and resources, contact Jeff Whitelow, Chicago Water Alliance at jeffwhitelow@yahoo.com

@FreshwaterFutur

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.