Water is a human right and our most basic necessity, yet in Baltimore, many families cannot afford their water bills.
The United Nations defines affordable water service as no more than 3 percent of a family’s household income. But over half of Baltimoreans are paying more than that. Our aging, and sometimes crumbling, water infrastructure needs maintenance that can only be paid for by funds the Department of Public Works (DPW) collects from water bills. That’s why water bills have skyrocketed in the last two decades. Updating our infrastructure is important for maintaining accessibility and water quality, but it’s imperative that we do not price low-wealth families out of water service as we do so.
That’s why the Baltimore City Council passed the Water Accountability & Equity Act in 2019 mandating the creation of Water4All – to ensure all families regardless of income have access to clean water. The Water4All affordability program was launched in February 2022 and is designed to better meet the needs of low-wealth Baltimoreans than previous water assistance programs.
How Water4All Works
Water4All is a percentage of income affordability program. Once enrolled, water and sewer bills will be capped at an affordable level under the U.N.’s 3-percent standard. Depending on income level and household size, the capped bill will be either 1 percent, 2 percent or 3 percent of a family’s household income. Once enrolled in Water4All, a family’s water bill will not increase despite rate increases unless the household income increases – thereby keeping bills permanently affordable. This is unlike past water assistance programs that offered a flat discount on water and sewer bills. Since the Water4All program is so highly personalized based on income, those enrolled must reapply every year to verify household income.
In addition to keeping water bills affordable, the Water4All program can provide debt relief for families with outstanding balances with the Department of Public Works. So, each time a family pays a water or sewer bill on time, the city will credit that same amount from the family’s existing outstanding debt with DPW.
Who is Eligible
Individuals or families making under 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline are eligible for the Water4All program. This is determined by total household income and size. Persons can visit https://bit.ly/42EPNfP to see if they qualify. The guideline is updated annually and adjusted with inflation. So, the qualifying income level will automatically shift as the guideline rises.
Additionally, Water4All is the first water assistance program in Baltimore City that tenants can apply for – whether they live in single-family or multi-family rental properties. If a tenant’s name is not on the water bill and they do not pay the city directly for water service, they must provide both a lease that states they are responsible for paying water and sewer services separately from rent, along with the amount to be paid monthly or how the landlord calculates each tenant’s water bill. A copy of an invoice from a landlord for a water bill is also sufficient.
Homeowners and tenants in single-family rentals will see the Water4All credit applied directly to their water bill. Tenants in multi-family units will receive a debit card that will be loaded with their Water4All credit amount.
Tenants in multi-family units who applied to Water4All before March 2023 were told their Water4All credit would count as taxable income since it’s a direct payment from the city and were asked to provide W-9s with their application. However, the IRS issued a guidance to the city informing them that the credit is not taxable income because it is considered a payment for the promotion of general welfare. The city will not count the credit as taxable income moving forward and said they have issued zeroed out 1099s to those who incorrectly received one and will not issue 1099s moving forward. They still will ask for a W-9, but again, will not issue any tax documents to program participants. Anyone reluctant to enroll in Water4All because the credit would count as taxable income should reconsider applying now that it won’t be.
How to Apply and Other Resources
Persons can get more information and apply for Water4All online, over the phone by dialing 410-395-5555 or in-person at any of the five Community Action Partnership centers. The email address is Water4All@baltimorecity.gov.
Families eligible for the Water4All program also may qualify for Maryland’s Low Income Water Assistance Program, which helps with debt relief for past due bills over one month old.
Take advantage of these resources and spread the word!
Rianna Eckel is a Baltimore Water Outreach Coordinator with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.