Elizabeth Weatherspoon raises two children on a fixed income in the East Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
She receives around $800 per month in disability benefits for herself, another $800 for one of her children and $300 in supplemental nutrition assistance. This puts her just below the federal poverty line.
Any costs that go up by more than inflation can make her even poorer. In recent years, water bills have been going up by almost three times the rate of inflation across the country. And in Pittsburgh, the water and sewage rates have been increasing even faster, about four times faster than inflation since 2017.
The average customer in the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] service area spent about 2.7% of their income on water and sewage. The Environmental Protection Agency considers water and sewage bills above 4.5% to be unaffordable.
But in a third of the city’s neighborhoods, at least one in every five customers was spending 10% or more of their income on water and sewage, according to PWSA’s own affordability study in 2019.
Since then, PWSA’s rates have continued to increase, making the bills even less affordable for low-income residents.
Weatherspoon recently had to spend a month in the hospital and fell behind on her water and sewage bill. She found herself more than $700 in debt, so she called up PWSA in March to figure out what she could do.
It’s lucky she called when she did.
PWSA’s moratorium on water shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic has come to an end after more than a year, and the agency has already sent initial shutoff notices to 20% of the 7,787 customers who fell behind on their bills. More than twice as many customers are at risk of a shutoff as in a typical year.
Weatherspoon was referred to PWSA’s customer assistance programs, which are available to anyone who earns 150% or less than the federal poverty level. That’s $32,940 for a family of three, and she was $13,000 below that.
She’s eligible for up to $300 in immediate assistance from PWSA and $36 off her monthly bill going forward. And she can pay off the money she’s fallen behind on slowly, over years. As long as she is making payments, PWSA is now also forgiving an additional $15 of her bill for every payment she makes.
Money has been so tight, Weatherspoon said, that she hasn’t been able to take her 4-year-old to the kinds of theme parks that she took her 14-year-old to. “It’s sad. My son is 4 years old and never been to Kennywood, never been to Sandcastle, never been to Disney World.”
Weatherspoon has been eligible for these discounts since her son was born four years ago. But she only learned about it when she fell behind over the winter.
She is not alone. PWSA has signed up 4,565 customers but estimates there are more than 21,000 additional customers who are eligible for the program but haven’t signed up yet.
A crushing burden
Water utilities across the country have struggled to give discounts to low-income customers.
One problem, according to Marcela Gonzalez Rivas, an assistant professor who studies water policy at the University of Pittsburgh, is that there isn’t a national standard. Many water utilities don’t provide any customer assistance at all, including some of the country’s largest in Miami, Charlotte and Salt Lake City. And those that do are left to their own devices about how to implement them, Rivas said.
Federal programs to help low-income customers pay their gas and electric bills have existed for decades but the federal government only recently funded two temporary programs to help water customers hurt during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Utilities often don’t say how many customers are signed up, so it’s difficult to compare, but they typically only sign up between 10% and 15% of their eligible customers, according to Sri Vedachalam, the lead author of a May Environmental Policy Institute study of 20 large water assistance programs.
He understands why water utilities don’t publicize their numbers. “Who would? It’s nothing to boast of,” he said. “You’re spending a lot of effort, asking...for budget support and then ending with somewhat dismal numbers.”
PWSA’s signup rate appears to be on the higher end, according to the study. But what counts as good isn’t great: Only 18% of PWSA customers who are likely eligible for the assistance have signed up.
State Rep. Ed Gainey, the victor of the Democratic primary for mayor in Pittsburgh, told PublicSource before his victory that he opposed further rate increases at PWSA that put an undue burden on low-income customers. “We can't talk about how do we protect the most vulnerable but we still continue to do rate hikes, knowing that that's the negative on them,” Gainey said.
The next mayor will have the power to nominate new members to the PWSA board, which would have the power to limit future rate increases.
The Pennsylvania Utilities Commission held public hearings in July about PWSA’s latest proposed rate increase of 19% over two years. During three afternoon sessions, the 18 people who testified were almost unanimous that the city’s water infrastructure needed improvements, including to prepare for flooding from climate change. But they almost all testified that the utility needed to do more to protect the city’s most vulnerable residents.
State Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-North Side, testified that the average customer’s bill would have increased 130% between 2016 and 2023, if the latest increases are implemented. (PWSA says its average customer’s bill increased 47% between 2017 and 2021). She said any rate increases should be put on hold until the agency signs up more low-income customers for its assistance program. “History has demonstrated that PWSA has not adequately made information about this program available to those in need,” she said.
Will Pickering, who just finished his first full year as executive director at PWSA in June, told PublicSource that one of the lessons he learned when working at the water utility in Washington D.C., was that PWSA needed to get in front of the inevitable hardship low-income customers would face as rates rose.
PWSA has been signing up customers faster than other Pittsburgh-area water and sewage utilities over the last two years, such as ALCOSAN and Pennsylvania American Water. And it is taking additional steps to increase participation, including hiring three staff whose primary responsibility is to help more customers sign up.
Drop in the ocean
PWSA’s new “PGH20 Cares” team showed up at the Spartan Community Center in Hazelwood for the monthly flea market on a Saturday in July.
The team, which was announced in February, is one of PWSA’s biggest investments to date directed at helping low-income customers learn about and sign up for assistance. Its three employees have begun attending community events and have plans to start knocking on doors.
The pandemic has forced water utilities across the country to innovate. The number of water customers in Louisville, Kentucky, at risk of shutoffs increased by 900% over the pandemic and most of them were people who had never missed a bill before. The utility started a program called “Drops of Kindness.”
It launched a media blitz, targeted advertising on social media, text messages to customers and put fliers in churches and grocery stores of communities with a lot of need. The agency has given away around $4.5 million to more than 13,000 customers and was cited by the US Water Alliance for its innovations.
One of the biggest factor’s in Louisville’s success PWSA has already adopted: They don’t require their customers to verify their incomes. Louisville’s assistance grants were designed to help any customer facing hardship from the pandemic, not just low-income customers. PWSA’s policy functions more like an honor system.
“With us, you can do it in 10 minutes over the phone, and you don’t have to give us anything,” said Sarah Viszneki, the PGH20 Cares team coordinator. “I think that once people realize how easy it is, they’ll tell their friends.”
PWSA also innovated during the pandemic, reaching out to more than 9,000 customers by phone who had fallen behind on their bills. They increased the program’s visibility on its website and advertised on Google, increasing the number of pageviews from virtually none to more than 10,000 since March. They added fliers to food pantry boxes.
And they have now trained their entire customer service staff about their assistance programs, said Julie Quigley, director of customer service. So when someone like Weatherspoon calls for help, “We’re not missing any of those contacts anymore,” she said.
Outreach by the Cares team will be focused on areas where its most vulnerable customers live. Hazelwood isn’t one of the neediest areas in the city, according to PWSA’s 2019 study, but about one in five residents in its census tract are spending at least 7% of their incomes on water and sewage bills. Some census tracts in Glen Hazel, Marshall-Shadeland and the Southside Flats have more than 500 customers each who would potentially be eligible for their program.
Jennifer Kennedy, the executive director of Pittsburgh United, wants PWSA to make its assistance program more generous. Although PWSA gives a 100% discount on its service charge and first 1,000 gallons of water, the bill can still be expensive for some large families who use a lot of water, she said. In Philadelphia, by contrast, customers are only required to pay a certain percentage of their income on water and sewage.
Philadelphia’s program is the only one of its kind in the country, according to Vedachalam at the Environmental Policy Institute. Unlike elsewhere, Philadelphia’s water utility collects information about the income-level of customers, he said, though that can be costly. PWSA looked into the Philadelphia model but found that it would be too expensive to administer, a spokesperson emailed in a statement.
PWSA believes its current level of assistance is generous. Compared to the 20 large utilities studied by Vedachalam, the percentage discount offered by PWSA is among the most generous, trailing only Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.
One of the biggest challenges is signing up renters who don’t pay their own water bill because it’s included in their rent. If landlords co-sign on the water bill, the renters are eligible to receive discounts that landlords could pass onto them. And in some other states, renters can even receive a credit on the electric bill if they don’t pay for water, Vedachalam said.
Pennsylvania could pass a law similar to one in California that requires utilities to share information about their customers, Pickering said. That would allow customers to sign up for assistance on their water, sewage, electric and gas bills all at once.
Gainey said he thinks these programs have to do more community outreach at events like local football games where low-income customers may be. He didn’t want to give a target for what percentage of eligible customers need to be signed up for him to be more receptive to PWSA’s rate increases.
“I don’t want to say we should be at 50% or 80% capacity because, to me, that’s lowering the ball,” he said. “Whether it’s feasible or not, we want to be at 100% of capacity.”
Even for PWSA, which is signing up more customers than other local water utilities, this means they have a long way to go.
The Cares team didn’t have much luck attracting people to its booth during the first couple of hours at the Hazelwood flea market. Some customers may not want to share information about their income in public, they speculated. There was a food truck nearby giving away nachos and sandwiches.
“We can’t compete with the free food,” said Cares team analyst Rebecca Copney.
Pickering looks forward to talking with Pittsburgh’s next mayor about the need for continued rate increases to pay for infrastructure upgrades. He said it’s only intuitive that more customers are going to become interested in their assistance program as their bills get larger.
“I would hold our program up to any across the country at this point,” he said.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
Quinn Glabicki contributed reporting.
This story was fact-checked by Catherine Taipe.