Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on May 26th, 2015
On March 26, the Department of Public Works (DPW) announced that 25,000 customers with unpaid water bills would have their water service turned off. But it wasn’t until mid-May that there was a list of which residential addresses would be or had already been targeted. On May 16, volunteers with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a local human rights organization, canvassed homes on the list.
On May 17, the second day of canvassing, a group of 10 volunteers met up at RTHA’s headquarters on Holliday Street, near Fallsway under I-83. It was a humid, hot day, the kind where you don’t head outside without bringing water—which, for the volunteers, drove home the importance of access to water.
Though nearly 90 percent of the shutoffs have been in Baltimore County, RHTA is focusing, for now, on the 170 homes on the list in Baltimore City. After Saturday and Sunday, canvassers had reached just over 50 homes.
Jessica Lewis, a lead organizer with RTHA, went over some canvassing basics before the volunteers hit the streets in small groups. If someone answers the door, Lewis instructed, make sure to ask if this address has had a water shutoff.
“We’re not going out to ask if they themselves did anything wrong, make your question passive,” she said. Ultimately, the volunteers’ main “ask” would be to invite residents to come to RTHA’s Tuesday night meeting, where individuals impacted by water shutoffs can brainstorm collectively on a potential response. “Don’t be afraid to agitate them a little,” said Lewis. “You can ask them if they think having their water shutoff is fair.”
The Baltimore Sun reported that businesses, government offices, and nonprofits owe $15 million in outstanding water bills, more than one third of the total $40 million that DPW seeks to collect. Yet six weeks into the water shutoffs, no delinquent commercial properties have been targeted by DPW. By contrast, more than 1,600 residents have lost service.
Half of Baltimore City residents rent their homes, and the water shutoff situation is particularly worrisome for tenants. According to Matt Hill and Zafar Shah, attorneys with the Public Justice Center, low-income tenants cannot get their own water accounts, and DPW does not allow them to challenge inaccurate bills because the water accounts are not listed in their name. “Public Works’ new policy is short-sighted and downright inhumane to low-income renters who are often caught in between the water company and their landlords,” Shah and Hill wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed. “At the very least . . . the city should allow renters to open accounts in their own names and permit them to challenge inaccurate billings and leaks.”
The RTHA volunteers split up into small canvassing groups. One group, including Molly Amster, the director of the Baltimore Jews United for Justice, and Sara McClean, a dietician with Moveable Feast, spent most of the day in Edmondson Village, though no one answered most of the doors they knocked on. At one house on Culver Street, a woman opened the door, closed it quickly, and then had her son come out to talk. He seemed ambivalent about discussing his water situation, but he took the resources offered back inside.
Lewis told volunteers that many of these homes may turn out to be abandoned, and indeed many addresses that volunteers visited appeared to be vacant properties. Volunteers took notes after each visit, documenting, among other things, the building type, whether or not they had a conversation with a tenant, and whether the property looked occupied or vacant. Volunteers left blue RTHA flyers outside most of the doors they visited that listed information on how to get support and more involved in organizing.
Another small group of canvassers met a man on Edgewood Street who described the hurdles he had to jump through to keep water on in his house, a particularly stressful situation because he has asthmatic children. He told the canvassers that he paid almost $400, including payments for water bills and jugs and bottles of water for his family.
Earlier in April, RTHA launched an online MoveOn petition calling for a moratorium on the water shutoffs. As reported in The Baltimore Brew, Tony Simmons, an organizer with RTHA, said that they will be organizing and petitioning City Council until there is more clear information about what’s going on; many residents are skeptical that their bills are even correct. The Rawlings-Blake administration says the shutoffs are necessary to pay for infrastructure improvements around the city. By Sunday night, RTHA had collected more than 2,000 petition signatures, and announced that it will be organizing more canvassers at its offices every evening that week. As of press time, they have collected more than 3,000 signatures.