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Community Lawyering Clinic Releases Report on “Man-Made Drought” Afflicting Low-Income Philadelphians

3Ls Cassandra Fitzgerald-Black and Sam Scavuzzo

February 22, 2016

Some low-income Philadelphians have lived for decades without running water in their homes, according to a report released by the Community Lawyering Clinic, “Needless Drought: The Water Deficit for Low Income Philadelphians.”

The Philadelphia Water Department’s affordability programs and deferred payment agreements are under-utilized by eligible Philadelphians, yet for those who are denied benefits, there is no consistent or transparent means to appeal adverse decisions, said the report, filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“In addition to being a violation of Philadelphians’ rights under Pennsylvania’s Constitution, this is also a violation of their basic human rights,” the report found, noting that low-income African Americans have been affected disproportionately by the "man-made drought."

Students Cassandra Fitzgerald-Black and Sam Scavuzzo, who wrote the report with editorial oversight from Professor and Clinic Director Rachel López, are scheduled to testify about the issue at a public hearing on March 1.

The report cites the experience of several Mantua and Powelton Village residents who contacted the clinic after being forced for years to purchase jugs of water for their homes, even as the water department continued charging them for storm water service.

Many problems stem from the onerous documentation required for affordability and deferred payment programs that residents of homes that have passed from one generation to another without a formal transfer of title lack, the report noted.  Some homes lack water because residents moved into homes from which meters had been removed, burdening them with significant outstanding bills that predated their occupancy.

The report cites a promising development that occurred late in 2015, when former Mayor Nutter signed an ordinance requiring the water department to create an income-based water rate affordability program. 

Calling the ordinance “a giant step,” the report notes that its implementation rests with the Philadelphia Water Department and the Water, Sewer and Storm Water Rate Board, which will structure the affordability program.

Left unclear, the report concludes, is whether or under what circumstances accounts in arrears will be forgiven and whether “the fundamentally broken appeals process” will be repaired.