Something as simple as filling a glass of water has left tens of thousands of Chicago homeowners in a pool of debt.
A report from WBEZ reveals that homeowners collectively owe up to $421 million in debt, and that includes penalty fees and water taxes. Sixty percent of those homeowners make up the city’s majority Black ZIP codes.
“This water debt crisis disproportionately impacts Black Chicagoans,” said María Inés Zamudio, WBEZ’s race, class and communities reporter. “When we looked at debt concentration, we found that ZIP codes with the highest debt burden were in majority-Black [areas]. And so this really outlines how the city collects debt. That system often punishes homeowners.”
Zamudio spoke to six homeowners who shared similar experiences with water debt. She said homeowners’ delinquent accounts were turned into code violations. Carla Padgett, a Southside homeowner featured in the investigation, had her water bills inflate from under $500 to $1,300 every six months. The high water costs are a result of former Rahm Emanuel issuing a water sewer tax to cover pension funds, back in 2017.
“Mayor Lori Lightfoot inherited this problem. Her press secretary told me that the [water debt crisis] is a priority to her—that she launched the utility bill relief last year to help low-income homeowners. [He said] the city has allocated about 12 million dollars to this program. But when you look at $421 million dollars that [Chicagoans pay] in water debt, it makes up only a small fraction of people [receiving water debt aid], Zamudio said.