CHICAGO – Water affordability is a growing concern. Over the past decade, the average residential water rate went up by almost 80% in northeastern Illinois, and many households will soon find their water bills unaffordable if water rates continue to rise at the expected pace. A new study from Elevate and Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) for the City of Chicago shows the state of water affordability in Chicago by using water billing data from Chicago’s residential water customers.
The study found that water burden – the percentage of a household’s income that goes toward paying water bills – in Chicago is significant. Chicago’s lowest income households are the most burdened and pay on average almost 10% of their income on their water bill, double the U.S. EPA threshold of 4.5%.
Key findings from the analysis include:
- Water burden in Chicago is not evenly distributed. Census tracts with a majority Black, Latinx, and/or Asian population face on average a higher water burden while using comparatively less water than accounts in majority white tracts. Notably, Chicago’s lowest income census tracts with a majority Black population pay on average 19% of their income on water bills.
- Residential customers without a water meter generally pay significantly more for their water bill than customers with meters. In 2019, nonmetered customers in Chicago paid on average $500 more for water than metered customers. The same non-metered customers also have higher water debt and water burden.
- Water affordability is not an issue confined to single-family homes. Multi-family buildings, particularly two-unit buildings, have the highest rates of bill nonpayment and the highest levels of water debt over time.
By sharing its water billing data for analysis, the City of Chicago has taken an important step towards learning about its unique affordability challenges and potential solutions. This step also builds on other City initiatives that are starting to tackle the water service and affordability challenges, including the Utility Billing Relief program and the moratorium on water shutoffs.
“Here in Chicago, we believe access to clean and affordable water is a human right,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. “While we’ve launched several City initiatives to protect this right, this new study makes it clear that we still have more work to do to ensure securing this basic need is not a burden to our residents. As long as the critical issues of water service and affordability exist, we will continue to listen, learn and implement solutions to address them.”
“Sharing water billing data is one very real and important thing that cities can do to really understand the water challenges their residents are facing and how to craft solutions to address these challengs,” said Anthena Gore, water programs strategist at Elevate. “We hope that more cities follow Chicago’s example and learn more about the water affordability challenges in their area.”
“Rising water rates mean that more people struggle to afford water-dependent necessities like cooking, cleaning, laundry, showering, and a host of other domestic water uses,” said Justin Keller, water resources manager at MPC. “This analysis is an important step to help Chicago better understand the scale and uneven distribution of water burden, usage, and affordability challenges throughout the city.”
Read the full City of Chicago Water Affordability Analysis to learn more about the state of water burden in Chicago.
Elevate is a nonprofit organization that works nationally and is headquartered in Chicago. Elevate designs and implements programs to ensure that everyone has clean and affordable heat, power, and water in their homes and communities —no matter who they are or where they live.
Since 1934, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has been dedicated to shaping a more equitable, sustainable, ad prosperous greater Chicago region. As an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, MPC serves communities and residents by developing, promoting and implementing solutions for sound regional growth.
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