Access to water is crucial for slowing the advance of Coronavirus, COVID-19
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, April 2020) The Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus the impact of poverty on the preparedness of Cleveland to address basic needs of the city’s population for health care, housing, education, food, water, heat, electricity, telephone connectedness, internet access, and access to the media for information about resources.
While all these issues are important to address when Cleveland leaders set priorities, let us focus for now on impact of not having access to water on health care.
A December 4, 2019 report by the Center for Community Solutions titled, “The poorer your neighborhood, the shorter your life” notes how the conditions in your community “influence how healthy you will be and how long you will live.” Indeed, media reports on some of the policy measures that Cleveland and Cuyahoga County are putting in place as a result of the pandemic highlight some of the hardships that Cleveland residents endure because of poverty and how they may present a threat to their health.
One critical way to slow down the advance of the coronavirus COVID-19, or colds and flu for that matter, is to be able to wash your hands frequently with soap and water. This is difficult to do if your water has been shut off because you got behind on the bill.
On Friday, March 13, Sam Allard reported in the Cleveland Scene in an article titled “City of Cleveland to Halt Water and Power Shutoffs, Restore Connections” that Mayor Frank Jackson announced in a March 11th press conference that the City of Cleveland will “temporarily halt all water and electric power shutoffs (Cleveland Public Power) and will restore service to those water and power have been disconnected.”
On March 27, Ron Regan, reporting for Channel 5 News in a report titled, “Cleveland restoring water, but thousands may remain without during coronavirus crisis” noted that “532 customers have had their water restored.” However, he noted that it was still unclear how many people still remained without water service.
The City of Cleveland is not alone is suspending water shutoffs during the pandemic. The Guardian Weekly reported on March 16 in an article titled “90 US cities and states suspend water shutoffs to tackle coronavirus pandemic” that “The expanding list of public utilities ordering a moratorium on shutoffs means about 57 million Americans in cities including Cleveland, Memphis and San Diego will be protected from losing their water service during the pandemic.”
The Guardian Weekly article quoted Michigan Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence as saying, “Suspending water shutoffs is the right thing to do. But, reconnecting every household in the country is essential during this emergency in which handwashing is a primary measure to stop the spread.”
While it is good public policy to avoid water shutoffs during a pandemic, Cleveland should find a way to make sure there is assistance for all residents going forward to help them keep their water running. Certainly, a city that can afford to give $30 million in subsidies to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, such as Sherwin Williams, can come up with subsidies to provide assistance to residents, so no Cleveland resident finds themselves living in a house without water. Being able to wash your hands, or take a shower is not only a public health issue during a pandemic, but at all times.
The City of Cleveland should also examine its policy of adding $8.75 to each monthly water bill as a Waste Collection Fee. This contributes to higher water bills with costs unrelated to water usage. The City of Cleveland should find a way to fund garbage collection other than its water bills. Traditionally, prior to the roll out of the new garbage and recycling containers, garbage collection had been paid for through the city’s general fund, largely from payroll and property taxes. Residents should address their concerns to Ward 16 Councilman Brian Kazy, newly appointed Chairperson of the Cleveland City Council’s Utilities Committee, and to their local City Council representative.
Why should we provide assistance to keep water running in all Cleveland homes? Not having the hammer of the threat of water shutoff hanging over their heads may cause some to delay paying their water bill, but increasingly cities across the nation have found cost effective ways to provide Customer Assistance Programs to ensure water service to customers is maintained. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a report on its website titled “Drinking Water and Wastewater Utility Customer Assistance Programs,” outlines a number of types of Customer Assistance Programs in use in other cities around the country.
The EPA report says, “Drinking water and wastewater utilities across the country are changing the way they do business to help all members of their communities maintain access to vital drinking water and wastewater services, while also protecting the utilities’ bottom lines.”
Speaking of the Customer Assistance Programs the report says:
These programs help households address issues with affordability and help protect public health throughout the community. They also help ensure the utility can sustainably provide its core services, price services appropriately, and preserve a broad customer base.
Offering a reason for the Customer Assistance Programs the EPA report says:
… a water service customer facing disconnection, also faces immediate health and safety threats. Therefore, water utilities across the United States have demonstrated a commitment to helping low- income customers and customers in crisis delay and avoid disconnection. Many communities have decided that each resident should have the same access to clean and safe water that everyone else in the community enjoys, even if paying for the service is beyond their immediate means. It is water’s special status as essential to public health that makes ensuring access more than a charitable cause.
The EPA report says Customer Assistance Programs benefit both customers and communities. Through these programs, customers are able to:
…address issues with affordability; retain or restore access to water services crucial to their daily life; avoid penalties and fees; and avoid the health threats, inconvenience, and stigma of water service disconnection.
The EPA report says that the Customer Assistance Programs benefit utilities by:
1) offering an opportunity to practice corporate responsibility – including improving public health and environmental quality; 2) improving public relations; and 3) improving financial health by reducing administrative and legal costs associated with debt collection, disconnection and reconnection.
Types of Customer Assistance Programs offered around the country include: Bill Discounts; Flexible Terms; Lifeline Rate; Temporary Assistance and Water Efficiency.
The City of Cleveland should explore these programs and develop a program that prevents any resident from having their water shutoff. The City of Cleveland’s current Customer Assistance Programs (see below) help some residents, but to address the long-term public health needs of Cleveland neighborhoods we need assistance programs that would prevent any resident from going without water in their household.
City of Cleveland currently has two discount programs available: The Homestead Discount Program and the Water Affordability Program. However, these programs are only available to persons who both own and live in the home where they are applying for the discount.
According to the City of Cleveland Division of Water website, The Homestead Discount Program is available to residents age 65 or older, or totally or permanently disabled, who both own and live in the property for which they are applying for the water bill discount. To qualify for the program residents must have a family income less than $34,500 per year. Those who qualify for the program will reduce their fixed rate cost and their cost per thousand cubic feet of water. The fixed rate for Homestead Discount Program customers is currently $5.80 per month as opposed to those not on the program who pay a fixed rate of $9.20 per month. The cost for the first thousand cubic feet of water for Homestead Discount Program customers is $14.20 as opposed to $21.85 for those not in the program.
According to the City of Cleveland Division of Water website, “The Water Affordability Program offers a 40% discount on all standard water charges. This includes both the monthly fixed charge and the consumption charge.” To be eligible for the program residents must both own and live in the home for which they are applying for assistance. They also must meet current income guidelines. For a single individual that means having an annual income of $24,280 or less; for a two-person household, $32,920 or less; 3 persons, $41,560 or less; 4 persons, $50,200 or less; 5 persons, $58,840 or less; 6 persons plus, add $8,640 for each additional household member. CHN Housing Partners administers the program. For more information or to apply for the program call 216-774-2349.