Cities across the country are struggling to maintain and update infrastructure while keeping water affordable, particularly for their most vulnerable households. Thanks in part to our Water Affordability program—co-organized by The Water Center at Penn—utilities are leading the way and offering a critical template that others can replicate.
We were honored to work with Toledo’s utility leaders at the Fall Water Affordability Academy and have since been providing ongoing technical assistance. A year later, Toledo is poised to announce a series of sweeping new water affordability initiatives.
Get to Know Your Community
Toledo got started by understanding first where the most vulnerable households are, along with the extent of vulnerability. They:
- utilized the AWWA criteria to identify burdened households in their community (see more below).*
- developed a 21-question survey (with assistance from external consultants) and disseminated to all customers to further understand the state of affordability at the household level, which allowed Toledo to go beyond simply knowing which customers are delinquent. Questions included: “during the pandemic, were you concerned about whether your water bill would become overdue before you could get money to pay it?”
- initiated other assistance programs at the same time that the shut-off moratorium was lifted. Toledo rolled out a debt forgiveness program with two tracts, one for people who owe less than $1,000 and one for people who owe more.
- <$1,000: debt is forgiven every month within 12 months as long as they stay up-to-date on their current bill.
- >$1,000, debt is forgiven within 24 months following the same guidelines.
- assembled a communications team to ensure that accurate information was reaching the customers that needed it the most. The City developed webinars to relay information to the community about affordability initiatives
The Power of Partnerships
One of the biggest challenges that arise when planning and implementing an affordability program is the administrative burden. To lessen this burden, utilities often partner with third party organizations. These organizations often support customers in managing 1) program eligibility, and 2) application process and payment processes.
Toledo just received approval from their city council to contract with PromisePay to create a one stop shop for customers, with flexible payment schedules, an online bill presentment/payment option, and automated payment plans to help customers get back on track.
Paymentus helps Toledo reach residents that pay their bill in-person (often low-income customers), but who cannot easily travel to their downtown offices. Paymentus allows people to:
- create a digital wallet to create and save payments
- offers text alerts to remind customers of payments and to send confirmations, and
- partners with local stores, such as Walmart, that are located closer to the resident’s home.
BlueConduit utilizes machine learning to bring clarity to public and private lead service line inventory and replacement. The City has an algorithm to determine where there are most likely lead service lines, and they are working with BlueConduit to ensure they’re correct. As a result, Toledo developed a loan program to replace private lead lines in 10 years with 0% interest.
The Pathway, Inc.
Finally, Toledo partnered with The Pathway, Inc., an entity that applied for and received a home relief grant from the federal government (EPA) to help residents pay for rent and utilities. Initially, The Pathway struggled to get applications to allocate the funds, but after partnering with Toledo, the collaborative team took action! The City put the information on their water bills, created postcards and sent them out to about 2,000 homes. Through this program, they supported 56 households (allocating up to $2,000/household) and eventually ran out of funds.
Toledo is taking an innovative approach to addressing their water affordability challenges. They recognize that in order to best support their community and reach their goals, they had to:
- Understand their needs to provide the most targeted and effective solutions.
- Recognize that in order to reach their goals without taking on a costly administrative approach, they would have to partner.
These are just a few key partnerships that the City of Toledo has established, to leverage other affordability efforts that are already happening in their community and to ensure that the most robust solutions are developed and implemented.
*How do we define Water Affordability? Historically, water has been considered affordable if it costs less than 2.5% of small community median household income (MHI), or a combined annual water and wastewater bill to be less than 4.5%. Overtime, practitioners in the field have acknowledged that these metrics do not adequately capture the true needs of their communities. To address this concern, AWWA developed a report recommending combining the household affordability burden of water services on single family households and the prevalence of poverty in the community. At the Water Affordability Academies, attendees are encouraged to follow the AWWA metrics for evaluating the burden that water bills have on low income, vulnerable households in their communities.