At a time when people need to wash their hands to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the City of Durham is shutting off their water. In mid-September, the City announced it would resume shut-offs for nonpayment, even though the pandemic is still raging and the economic fallout deeply felt. In doing so, the City threatens public health and creates yet another burden for households that are already struggling to make ends meet.

Almost five thousand water accounts in Durham were eligible for disconnection at the end of July, according to data submitted to the North Carolina Utilities Commission. Before then, residents were protected by a March executive order from Governor Roy Cooper banning water, sewer, and electricity shutoffs. The moratorium on utility disconnections ended in July, along with federal unemployment benefits. Without the moratorium, the safety and health of our residents are threatened as unemployment remains high and coronavirus cases are expected to grow through the fall and winter.

Washing hands is one of the most critical preventative measures against the spread of the coronavirus. Without water, our residents cannot engage in even the most basic tasks of sanitation and survival. Shutting off water not only impacts individual households; it compromises the health of our entire community, especially our most vulnerable residents. Communities that are most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the same communities vulnerable to water shut-offs.

In Durham County, Black and Latinx residents have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, making up over 75 percent of confirmed cases.  Black and Latinx residents are also more likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic, to face housing cost burden and instability, and to have little to no savings for weathering an economic shock. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the systemic failures and inequities in our neighborhoods, our economy, and our public infrastructure that were created by structural racism and decades of disinvestment. Shutting off water is a punitive measure that increases the burdens residents already face and puts them at greater risk for contracting the coronavirus, along with our entire community.

Water shutoffs preceded the pandemic, of course. Between June 2016 and June 2019, there were more than 30,000 disconnections—or about 12,100 a year—in Durham, concentrated near the center of the city and east of downtown, according to a report from the National League of Cities presented at a recent Durham City Council work session. People living in low-income areas or communities of color were more likely to experience shutoffs.

Residents that had their water shut off reported feelings of diminishment, failure, and shame, along with increased levels of stress, anxiety, and hardship. They had to pawn their belongings, forgo bathing, or send their kids to school wearing the same clothes until they were able to pay.

During that same period, the City collected $2.1 million in disconnection and late fees. To its credit, the City’s Department of Water Management has a program to help residents pay past-due water bills, but it is consistently underutilized; $170,000 went unused in the past three years. That amount would not cover what residents currently owe, which is closer to $1 million, but it would help some families who are already behind. 

The amount residents currently owe represents only 1 percent of the total projected revenue for water and sewer services. According to  the latest financial report to the City Manager, operating revenues for water and sewer services currently exceed the budget, and the fund has “consistently finished each fiscal year in a strong financial position.” Even if Durham were to lose 20 percent of its water and sewer revenue—or $20 million—due to COVID-19, one estimate shows it would still be able to cover its operations, maintenance, and debt service costs for more than eight years by using its unrestricted cash to offset losses. 

In addition to offering payment plans and expanding the reach of its underutilized hardship fund, the City of Durham should eliminate disconnection fees and suspend shutoffs for non-payment. Doing so is not only a compassionate response to an unprecedented emergency but also a necessary public health measure during a pandemic.

Beyond these measures, Durham has an opportunity to reimagine how we might provide clean water to everyone, regardless of economic status. Access to safe and clean water shouldn’t be a commodity, especially during a pandemic and economic recession. 

Lucia Constantine is an urban planner and part of a Durham neighborhood mutual aid group formed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

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