New Data Reveals Thousands of New Yorkers At Risk of Water Shutoffs
New data released today reveals that thousands of New York households risk having their water turned off. With our partner Western New York Law Center, we found that thousands of New Yorkers are struggling to pay their water bills, following Freedom of Information Law requests to water authorities in Monroe, Erie, Oneida, and Suffolk Counties, which together serve over 3 million New Yorkers,
Water shut-offs or foreclosures can impact health and livelihoods, and in the case of families with children.
Key findings include:
- In October 2021, more than 200,000 residential accounts collectively owed over $31 million to the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA). These debts can carry serious consequences. Before the statewide shut-off moratorium was in place, SCWA conducted 2,637 residential shutoffs for nonpayment from January 2019 through March 2020.
- In early December 2021, the Monroe County Water Authority had 3,534 residential and commercial accounts in arrears. Pre-pandemic, the utility conducted 1,834 shutoffs for nonpayment in 2019, and 403 shut offs between January 2020 and March 2020.
- In October 2021, residential and commercial accounts owed over $7.9 million in water debt to the Erie County Water Authority. This is an increase of over $2.7 million from the figures reported two years prior.
- In 2021, the Mohawk Valley Water Authority had over $800,000 due in arrears from 3,006 residential customers.
With energy debt in New York reported at $1.8 billion and New York City’s water and wastewater utility noting that residential and commercial arrears have nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic, totaling at around $750 million dollars; it is safe to assume that water debt has surged to at least the hundreds of millions statewide. Despite the urgency of this crisis, neither Governor Hochul, the State Senate, or the State Assembly have proposed any funding for water bill assistance in their respective budget proposals.
Advocates are calling for the final state budget, due April 1, to include at least $400 million for the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, which relieves both customers and water utilities of crushing debt and ensures participating New Yorkers don’t lose access to water. Currently, its only source of funding is a $70 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, NCLEJ, the Western New York Law Center, and other groups are also pushing for the passage of legislation in Albany to reinstate the utility shut-off moratorium (S.7668) and to require utilities to regularly publish data on debt, shut-offs, and other critical indicators of utility affordability (S.5451-A).
Water utilities are not required to release data on shutoffs and customer arrears, or any other indicators of the affordability of water services, to the public. The Western NY Law Center and NCLEJ attempted to secure data from ten of the largest water utilities in the state, but only four responded to FOIL requests. Among those four utilities, there is no consistency in how they collect or report data. For example, the Erie County Water Authority claims it does not track how many shut-offs they conduct.
The unaffordable cost of water and the compounding harms of subsequent debt is exacerbating the economic realities New Yorkers are facing from the ongoing pandemic and global crises. Gasoline prices are the highest they’ve ever been, energy bills are doubling due to global commodity cost increases, capacity issues, and shortages, and overall, New Yorkers are struggling to pay their essential bills. People’s access to clean water must not be another essential service that’s placed at risk.
“Water affordability has always been a problem in New York, but the pandemic has pushed families to the brink. No one should have to choose between paying rent, buying food, and having access to water. The data released today underscores this dilemma. We need the NYS Legislature and Governor Hochul to take action so that no one gets denied this fundamental right,” said NCLEJ attorney Katharine Deabler-Meadows.
“The data from selected municipal water providers across the State documents that the aggregate amount of money owed by water customers was a grave problem before the pandemic,” said Western New York Law Center attorney Steve Halpern. “That problem has ballooned in drastic ways during the pandemic. To devise effective statewide policies addressing water affordability, the State needs detailed, reliable, systematic data about the gravity of the problem and should disseminate that information publicly on an annual basis.”
Katharine Deabler-Meadows, National Center for Law and Economic Justice