Baltimore renters don’t receive a water bill at the end of each month. By law, city water bills can only be made out to property owners, meaning most landlords tack that balance on top of monthly rental payments. For years, consumer advocates have complained that renters cannot easily view these bills, making them susceptible to bogus charges from landlords.
A new proposal seeks to close that loophole.
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett introduced legislation at Monday’s council meeting that would require the Department of Public Works to provide inquiring renters copies of any water bills issued to the owner of their residence during the duration of their lease. The bill’s language says the agency must “timely provide” the copies; Kimberley Sauer, Burnett’s chief of staff, said the timeframe will be specified at subsequent bill hearings and will likely be about 30 days. The bill would not apply to commercial renters.
The bill would also mandate DPW to provide water bills to property owners who can prove they own and occupy a property as their principal residence. Sauer said that some homeowners have reported that the agency would not issue them water bills because the records inaccurately said their properties belonged to previous owners.
The city’s aging water and sewer systems, which also service Baltimore County, have long been rife with problems. Thousands of West and South Baltimore residents were forced to boil their water last week after routine testing showed E. coli at three sites in the Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods. A 2019 report from the city’s and county’s offices of the inspectors general found that more than 22,000 dysfunctional water meters resulted in errantly high water bills for residents and cost Baltimore millions in uncollected revenue.
And water bills have increased about 30% since 2019, when then-Mayor Catherine Pugh enacted three yearly 10% increases, saying more funding was needed to improve the water system.
When water bills dramatically increase from one month to the next, many landlords provide their tenants copies of water bills, Burnett said. But sometimes, “tenants reach out to us because the owner of the property or the account holder would not send them the bill and are just simply including the the increased charges in their rent,” he said.
In 2020, lawmakers passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act, a years-long legislative effort to create a water bill discount program tiered by income. The act also established an office to assist Baltimoreans hit with high bills and to advocate for renters.
Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, said she and other members of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition worked extensively with the city law department to draft language in the legislation ensuring that renters have “indisputable access to the bills they have to pay.”
But after the bill became law, the coalition continued to hear from renters that DPW would not provide them copies of their bills. Eckel said that when they approached the agency, the law department responded that “the language in the [water equity law] is really more of a suggestion.” Eckel called the response maddening. “This is a concrete example of why things are so dysfunctional,” she said.
Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said city attorneys were careful not to enshrine access to copies of the bills as a right in the law.
“They’re saying, ‘We want residents to have benefits or access, but we can’t guarantee it as a right,’” he said. “I think that concern is overstated.”
Shah added that the water equity law calls for landlords to issue tenants copies of their water bills, but there’s no penalty to enforce the requirement. That means renters are still at risk of being evicted or taken to small claims court, where, without copies of their bill, they are unable to show a judge whether their unpaid charges are accurate or whether the charges occurred while they were living in the rental unit, he said.
Burnett’s legislation would go into effect 30 days after being signed into law. Mayor Brandon Scott said last week that water bills citywide would be discounted by 25% this billing period to make up for the inconvenience of the boil water advisory.