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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Fixing NYC's Water Problems Goes Way Beyond "Deadbeats"

Guest Opinion by Gregory Lobo Jost
A few good things came out of the New York City Water Board meeting this past Friday morning. At the most basic level, we learned that the entity that sets water rates for the City has finally developed a website, so now you can now figure out who actually is on the Board, read their mission statement, look at past meeting minutes and resolutions, and (most fun of all) find out just how much water rates have gone up since 1980.

(To spare you the time and fun, the cost has gone up 209% -- after adjusting for inflation and corresponding sewer costs -- meaning you’re paying more than triple for the same amount of water than you did 28 years ago. Good thing we’ve all got low-flow toilets now, right? Just by way of comparison, a gallon of gasoline costs about the same as it did back in 1980, also after adjusting for inflation – maybe that’s why we’ve become much more efficient with water than we have at the pump.)

More importantly, the Water Board announced that they are extending the deadline for delinquent single family homeowners to sign up for the Payment Incentive Program until April 21. (Councilman Rivera is hosting a PIP event today from 3-8pm at his office on Southern Blvd. and Fairmount Pl.) While this is welcome news for the thousands of families that missed the original deadline (February 21), it still is not going to stop the shutoffs from taking place. In fact, even though the deadline has been extended, shutoffs will likely begin before the PIP deadline rolls around. (Owners of multiple unit dwelling won’t be facing shutoffs but will be subject to lien sales, and their deadline is also April 21.)

The press has been quick to jump on these homeowners, labeling them as “deadbeats” without ever interviewing anyone who is delinquent on their water bill. The public has a right to be angry at someone after the recent huge rate increases -- and since DEP and the Water Board continue to blame everything on uncollected bills, homeowners are an easy target.

But looking at this issue through the larger lens of affordability in New York City reveals a mixed landscape. Sure, there are a bunch of folks out there trying to get away with not paying the one bill that, until recently, had no enforcement mechanism. But consider that in many parts of the City, homeowners typically pay more than 50 or 60% of their incomes on their housing costs. Factor in the recent spike in subprime lending and ARM resets and it’s no wonder certain bills are going unpaid.

Our own analysis of the shutoff list from DEP showed that more than 15% of the 600 Bronx homeowners who remained in danger of shutoff 3 weeks ago were actually already in foreclosure. Obviously, they are not going to pay their water bill! The numbers are even more striking for the 2,200 2-4 family homeowners in the Bronx who were on the 90-day lien sale list solely for water bills – nearly 20% of them are in foreclosure!

With foreclosure rates still going up, these numbers may likely rise; in fact, the threat of shutoff may force some homeowners to choose to pay their water bill over their mortgage. While that’s good news for DEP, higher foreclosure rates aren’t helping the City out overall. The Water Board is claiming that families in foreclosure won’t have their water shut-off or their liens sold. Let’s hope they make many fewer mistakes on their enforcement policies than they do on their billing.

Meanwhile, it’s time to stop solely blaming so-called deadbeats for excessive water rate increases and really analyze DEP’s spending, the rental payment they make to the City coffers, and how we can really reform the way we pay for water in New York City. University Neighborhood Housing Program plans to do just that at our upcoming 25th anniversary forum on Water & Sewer Reform on April 10.


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