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Chicago Leading the Charge To Eliminate Water Shutoffs for Nonpayment, Still Work To Be Done

A recent ordinance passed by Chicago City Council amends the language related to water shutoffs for nonpayment of utility bills. This is a bold step and, with further refinement, could be a model for other utilities in Illinois and beyond.

Image courtesy Timothy Neesam
Water shutoffs in recent years 

Shortly after taking office in May 2019, Mayor Lightfoot suspended water shutoffs for nonpayment of utility bills. Three years later, the Mayor’s Office introduced an ordinance to codify that temporary suspension, and, on July 20, 2022, Chicago City Council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance. It amends relevant sections of the Municipal Code of Chicago related to water shutoffs. Specifically, the amendments remove authority for the Department of Water Management to terminate water service for nonpayment of assessments or charges for water and sewer service and refuse collection. 

If Chicago can get this right, it would pave the way for many similar programs aimed at protecting access to water for millions of households in Illinois, the U.S., and beyond.

In the Mayoral Briefing Book we sent to candidates in 2019, MPC encouraged the city to rework the water shutoff policies to “avoid expensive service termination” and “support residents in a more humane and transparent approach.” We advocated for the continued suspension of water shutoffs for nonpayment in the City of Chicago Water Affordability Analysis report, released in partnership with Elevate in early 2022. This report highlighted “the overwhelming issue of racial inequities tied to water service and affordability.” 

Many states enacted shutoff moratoria as temporary emergency measures in response to the pandemic. Most of these have since expired, though various states still prevent service disconnections under certain conditions – such as when the temperature is above or below a specific threshold, during summer and winter months, for some ratepayers (e.g., seniors), while ratepayers are enrolled in a payment plan or other assistance program, and more. To our knowledge, though, Chicago is the first U.S. city to end the practice of shutting off water for nonpayment. 

Breaking down the impacts of the ordinance

In the ordinance passed July 20, sections related to residential water service disconnection for nonpayment of charges related to water, sewer, and refuse collection have been amended or removed from the municipal code. (The city retains the ability to shut off water service for industrial users, commercial establishments, and other municipalities when they fall behind on charges.)

This presents a potentially significant win for the City of Chicago’s water burdened residential ratepayers. Nevertheless, MPC along with other water advocates have concerns about various provisions and amendments in the ordinance: 

CONCERN 1: “The Commissioner is authorized to terminate any water service supplied by the City if […] the Commissioner determines that said service is causing waste, abuse of water supply, or any danger to public health, safety, or the general well-being of the Chicago Waterworks System;” 

CONCERN 2: “During participation in the [Utility Billing Relief program], a Participant is exempt from having water shut off; the assessment of additional penalties and interest on any past due charges incurred before becoming a Participant, or charges incurred while a Participant; and referral for debt collection.” 

CONCERN 3: “The remedy by enforcement of the lien for unpaid water bills and charges as provided in Sections 11-12-490 and 11-12-500 of this Code shall not be exclusive of any other legal remedy to collect the amount due and unpaid for water consumed or furnished to, or water service installed or disconnected for, the person liable therefor.” 

Is this a step, a solution, or is something more at stake? 

This is a huge step in ensuring equitable water service for the residents of Chicago. We thank the Chicago officials and staff behind this bold legislation. Is it perfect? No. There is still work to be done to ensure every Chicagoan retains access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water.

To our knowledge, Chicago is the first U.S. city to end the practice of shutting off water for nonpayment.

Water shutoffs are too frequently relied upon as a way to incentivize payment. With shutoffs off the table for Chicago, a new way to incentivize payment is needed. Chicago created the Utility Billing Relief program, which provides a 50% reduction in charges and uses the ability to wipe out unpaid balances (as opposed to threats of shutoff) to incentivize payment. Will it be enough? Others will certainly be watching.

Water affordability is a multi-faceted issue, and a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t exist. But if Chicago can get this right, it would pave the way for similar programs aimed at protecting access to water for millions of households in Illinois, the U.S., and beyond.

We are deeply grateful to the following for their support of MPC’s robust water agenda: the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Grand Victoria Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, McDougal Family Foundation, and the Prince Charitable Trusts.   

This blog’s co-author, Jules Voigt, is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying urban planning. They are passionate about social justice and are interested in using policy and planning as tools to address equity issues within cities.