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Getting Hosed: Woman Charged $24,000 For Water She Never Used

CHICAGO (CBS)City Hall has finally acknowledged a problem the CBS 2 Investigators have been exposing for years: Chicago’s antiquated billing system.

After Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently announced a plan to resume meter installations, we looked into the City program and discovered how ineffective it will be — especially for one Chicagoan “Getting Hosed.”

When Sylvia Taylor visits her parents’ Englewood home, she doesn’t see the ever-increasing vacant lots or boarded up houses populating the street.

“I see Englewood from the lens I saw it growing up,” she said.

But now, her parents’ home — once part of their American dream — has turned into an American scheme. 

“I know they’re both turning over in their graves because when my parents left it to me,” Taylor said. “They did not expect this.” 

In 2006, Taylor’s father passed away and she inherited the family home. Shortly after, she lost her job and almost lost her own home in a foreclosure. Meanwhile, the water bill at her parent’s vacant home — the farthest thing from her mind — ballooned to $24,700.32.

Taylor only became aware of the issue when the City began posting bright, orange water shut-off notices on the property. 

She told the City the house had been vacant since her father passed in 2006, and therefore, no water had been used. But in Chicago, unmetered properties get charged regardless of whether or not water flows through their pipes. 

Water bills like Taylor’s aren’t based on actual water usage. They’re estimated based on arbitrary measurements like property size and plumbing fixtures. Without a meter, homeowners essentially pay for “unlimited water,” according to the City.

This billing process, coupled with the fact that water rates have increased 300 percent since 2011, has resulted in thousands who cannot afford their bill.

There are currently 5,359 Chicagoans who have an outstanding water balance older than five years. Not surprisingly, most of these accounts — 3,622 — are unmetered.

“The times that I’ve asked them to put the water meter in they said no, because you owe us money.”

Furthermore, the City has historically denied customers with an outstanding bill a water meter until their balance was paid off — only causing their unmetered bills to pile up. 

“I still feel that’s a Catch-22,” Taylor said. 

Having an unmetered bill comes at a hefty price — a fact the City acknowledged when it implemented its “MeterSave” program in 2009. The initiative encouraged homeowners to switch to metered accounts so their bills would be based on water usage, and not City estimates. It even promised a seven-year guarantee that single family homeowners would save 25 percent on their water bills.

As of June 28, 2019, the program was suspended because of suspected lead contamination that meter installations caused. As a result, the 180,000 Chicagoans without a meter have no alternative but to swallow bills that are at least 25 percent higher than the ones metered property owners pay.

So who’s footing these big bills? The CBS 2 Investigators submitted a Freedom of Information Act to find where the 180,000 unmetered accounts were located. 

In Taylor’s Englewood neighborhood, there are 2,360 unmetered accounts. That is almost three times as many as Edgewater, the North Side neighborhood with the greatest number of unmetered accounts — 761. 

The data also shows the farther South and West you go, the more non-metered accounts you’ll find. 

To address this disparity, Lightfoot launched the “Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program.” The goal is to eliminate Chicago’s lead service lines, which will allow meter installations to resume. 

The $15 million endeavor will prioritize low-income residents who can apply for a free line replacement through the City’s online application

But the CBS 2 Investigators wanted to know — how many of the 180,000 unmetered homes will the $15 million program fix? The City told us up to 600 residences could receive replacements with this funding. That’s less than one percent.

So, how much to fix all 180,000 non-metered homes? 

At a press conference, Lightfoot estimated it would cost $8.5 billion. She further acknowledged this funding doesn’t exist yet.

At that same press conference, we also asked the Mayor about our “Getting Hosed” series, in which we advocate for Chicagoans who receive unfair bills. 

“I’m not familiar with any overcharges,” she responded.

Apparently, she hadn’t seen our series, in which every bill we’ve investigated is wrong, saving Chicagoans a total of $160,287.63 to date. It is a grand total which now includes Taylor. 

After we began investigating this bill, the City looked over it’s records, which indicate Taylor’s water has been off since 2011, resulting in a $23,201.52 refund. 

Her balance now stands at $3,299.72, unfortunately, not zero. That’s because her property is unmetered, which means the City can charge her for water prior to 2011 — even though she didn’t use any. On top of that, it resumed billing her for water, despite the fact that no water is being used. 

“It makes me wonder how they view our lives here,” Taylor said.

Source: CBS Chicago | News Colony

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