Undermining a basic right

Some of our Asheville neighbors are paying more than three times as much for their water-and-sewer service as other city residents. If that weren’t enough of a disadvantage, those neighbors live in a mobile-home park, many are surviving on minimum-wage jobs, and others are disabled seniors. When a proposed Wal-Mart project threatened to displace the Monticello Mobile Home Park in West Asheville last winter, the residents learned that those who owned older homes couldn’t even move them legally. The high water charges only pile more economic pain onto people already facing many obstacles. Wal-Mart may have given up on this site, but the property is still for sale, and residents don’t know when they’ll be forced to move.

Meanwhile, Asheville Property Management’s announcement two years ago that it intended to start charging residents separately for water had sparked considerable alarm. At least 35 residents from among the park’s 57 households signed a petition pleading with the N.C. Utilities Commission to reject the landlord’s franchise application and proposed rates.

Sandra Pruitt told the commission that the high water rates could drive her and her neighbors from their homes. “The added expenses to all of us will be hard to bear if this goes through. I’m struggling right now to pay my bills. I’m really having a hard time; I can’t stand any more. I’ve got a low income. We also have elderly people.” Despite their pleas, the commission granted the park owners permission to resell at a profit water bought from Asheville.

Unaffordable water has already made residents of other mobile-home communities — including one within two miles of Raleigh — homeless. People can’t pay their bills (often well over $100 per month), are told they’re wasting water, and their service is turned off. When health authorities learn of kids washing with their neighbors’ hoses and relieving themselves in the woods, the residents are evicted.

Some of America’s earliest water-supply systems were developed by private, for-profit enterprises serving select areas. But it was only when publicly owned systems acquired and extended those lines to serve everyone within their jurisdiction that the major public-health breakthroughs of the early 20th century gained momentum. Waterborne diseases, long a part of urban living, quickly diminished, and life expectancy rose. It became unthinkable to develop a city economically without offering water and wastewater infrastructure, managed by local governments, at affordable cost. Municipalities worldwide have shown that when the commitment is there, they can ensure affordable, safe water for all.

The primary mission of for-profit water companies is providing profits for investors, not protecting public health. And for people who are already living in poverty and have few housing options, the consequences of this are predictable — especially when the state Utilities Commission doesn’t take residents’ income into consideration in setting water rates.

Across North Carolina, lower-income and African-American communities — even those located in or near cities — have seen water lines pass right by them en route to serving wealthier, outlying new developments. It’s a widespread but almost invisible form of discrimination driven by municipal governments’ desire to squeeze out residents and businesses that don’t generate much tax revenue, while freeing up land for new development. Residents in these marginalized communities may still be using private wells at their single-family homes, even in densely populated areas where ground-water contamination is more likely.

Meanwhile, multifamily housing (such as mobile-home parks or apartments) is often the most affordable option for people in low-wealth communities. And people living in such housing are more likely to be served by a privately owned water system than other residents of the same area, even within the city limits.

North Carolina has more than 7,000 designated public water supplies. Most of these systems are tiny, with fewer than 500 customers; about 6,000 are privately owned. Often, the owner of a mobile-home park or other multifamily residence buys bulk water from a publicly owned system or pumps it from a private well, delivering it to tenants via separate meters.

Many owners sell the water at a profit, and they often have neither the knowledge to maintain the system nor the motivation to do so. In fact, with profits tied to the volume of water consumed, landlords have an incentive not to fix leaky pipes or fixtures. Thus, residents may pay dearly for water they never used.

Latin America and other developing regions have learned hard lessons about water privatization after being forced into it by international lenders like the World Bank. Faced with strong public resistance, corporations are decreasing their investment in such areas. Ironically, however, the U.S. is seeing some of the most rapid growth of water privatization, mostly involving smaller systems. Big cities such as Atlanta, which experimented with it and then withdrew from a badly mismanaged contract, have already learned the consequences for system maintenance, quality of service and public transparency.

Most Americans say they support publicly owned water, but we’ve been slow to wake up to three myths that are driving the accelerating privatization trend:

Private systems are not more efficient. Their customers often pay more for service that’s less accountable than a publicly owned system.

Private systems do not offer additional problem-solving expertise. In fact, the operators are less likely to be networking with their peers to find solutions for water-quality problems.

Privatization does not increase investment to improve systems. A study sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that privately owned systems spend substantially less on repairs and improvements while often laying off experienced staff.

In our wealthy nation, the impact of privatization on our poorest communities has been largely hidden. But safe, affordable water is a universal human right. And in North Carolina, reforms of state laws and utility regulation to protect that right are long overdue.

To learn about water pricing, the N.C. Utilities Commission and how to submit comments, contact Clean Water for NC. To help Monticello Mobile Home Park residents find new homes, call the Affordable Housing Coalition at 259-9216.

[Hope Taylor-Guevara, a biomedical researcher for 20 years, is the executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. Mary Grant, an environmental-science major at Duke University, worked with CWFNC to produce a forthcoming report on the impacts of water privatization.]

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