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Analysis of municipal water access and affordability policies in Massachusetts

Estrella-Luna, Neenah

The Advisory Committee’s project on water affordability focuses on the civil rights issues that may be raised by the increasing costs of household water across the Massachusetts. We are specifically interested in local water authorities’ uses of liens and/or water shutoffs to enforce payment for services. The increase cost of water and the risk of water shutoff affects property owners directly. Renters are also affected insofar as the cost of water is incorporated into rents and shutoffs may result in displacement. The COVID pandemic has strengthened our concerns as handwashing is a critical preventive practice.

Previous research focusing on the City of Boston found significant racial disparities in water shutoffs.[1] A more recent study by Northeastern University School of Law found that municipal water affordability programs exclude renters.[2] Given the very low rates of homeownership among people of color in Massachusetts, the exclusion of renters from water affordability programs may have a disparate impact on people of color.

Unfortunately, neither municipalities nor water authorities collect data on the demographic characteristics of ratepayers or on the households that have been subject to shutoffs or liens. In order to better understand the potential for disparate treatment or discriminatory effects, we conducted an exploratory descriptive study of the municipal policies related to water access and affordability.

This analysis suggests that there may be disparities in access to affordable and safe water in Massachusetts. None of the 40 municipalities studied offered any financial supports that would benefit renters. There is no consistency in the structure or operation in any of the policies or programs studied. Since no municipality or water authority collects data on the individual characteristics of the homeowners who receive water discounts or whose water is shutoff, it is difficult to determine with any certainty whether there are disparities in access to affordable and safe water for protected categories.

 

[1] Massachusetts Global Action. "The Color of Water: A Report on the Human Right to Water in the City of Boston." (2014). Retrieved from http://massglobalaction.org/projects/colorofwater/primary_report_shutoffs_pre-pub.pdf

[2] Martha F. Davis. “A Drop in the Bucket: Water Affordability Policies in Twelve Massachusetts Communities,” (Northeastern University School of Law: Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, Boston 2019). Retrieved from https://www.northeastern.edu/law/pdfs/academics/phrge/water-report-2019.pdf

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