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Consent decree to fix sewers approved

As we have discussed before, there are concerns about how the extra cost of this decree will affect low-income residents.

Houston is facing a federal mandate to upgrade its embattled sanitary sewer system, stirring concerns among advocates and civic leaders that the estimated $2 billion bill — and the higher rates required to pay it — could overburden low-income families.

The average city sewer bill already exceeds what the Environmental Protection Agency considers affordable for more than 113,500 Houston families, Houston Public Works and Census Bureau data show. That could rise to more than a quarter of all Houston households if sewer costs increase by 19 percent.

Such a hike is unlikely to happen overnight, but the average city water bill has risen 17 percent in the last six years via annual increases for inflation alone.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has not said how much bills are expected to rise as a result of the consent decree, citing a pending rate study, but repeatedly has said costs will remain “well below” the EPA threshold.

Experts, however, say that guideline — which aims to keep annual sewer charges below 2 percent of the citywide median household income — has been “discredited” in large part because it obscures the burden on poor families.

In Houston, for instance, sewer charges could more than double and still remain below the EPA threshold. That is in part because the city’s rates today are modest: A 2017 American Water Works Association report ranked Houston’s average bills and their affordability roughly in the middle of the nation’s 25 largest cities.

“The intellectual case for using median household income as the exclusive determinant of affordability has collapsed,” said Tracy Mehan, AWWA director of government affairs. “What about the employment rate? What about the 50 percent of the population that’s ignored at median levels?”

Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, of which Houston is a member, agreed.

“There is really very little underpinning that 2 percent,” he said. “That being said, it’s what has driven consent decrees in virtually every major city across the country. This needs to be done on a more sensitive basis in terms of what really is affordable.”

[…]

A 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis found that neighborhoods most likely to experience sewer spills were disproportionately home to low-income and minority residents, and 77016 matches that. The area — where 97 percent of residents are black or Hispanic and the median income is a third lower than the citywide figure — tallied the third-highest count of spills from 2009 to 2016.

“Separate and apart from the consent decree, we need to address SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows),” Turner said last week. “And there’s no question many of those SSOs are occurring in low-income, minority neighborhoods.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t know how to address the issue of what poorer people are charged, but past studies suggest that a more strongly tiered rate structure that charged high-volume water users more proportionally would be a good starting point. Maybe spend some money helping low-income people conserve water and thus keep their bills as low as possible. No matter what, this is a long-overdue step, and the benefit of reducing sewer spills will go heavily to those same neighborhoods. We just need to help mitigate the negative effects on them. Council has officially approved the agreement, so now is the time to figure the rest of this out.

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