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AWWA approves first Affordability Policy Statement

With water affordability increasingly on the minds of utilities and consumer advocates, AWWA’s Executive Committee this week approved an Affordability Policy Statement to help communities navigate the conundrum of necessary rate increases and their impact on low-income households.

With water affordability increasingly on the minds of utilities and consumer advocates, AWWA’s Executive Committee this week approved an Affordability Policy Statement to help communities navigate the conundrum of necessary rate increases and their impact on low-income households.

The statement in part “strongly recommends the adoption of policies and procedures by utilities, regulators, and governmental entities to address the affordability challenges experienced by some of their residential customers.”

It adds that “Utilities should work closely with their local, state, provincial, and national governments to ensure that applicable laws and policies do not impede utility efforts to address affordability challenges and evaluate new policies that allow low-income households to have access to utility services, while maintaining the fiscal sustainability of utilities.”

See the complete statement online.

One example of a community addressing affordability challenges can be found in Portland, Oregon, where the municipal utilities have developed and expanded a comprehensive portfolio of customer assistance strategies over the past 25 years. 

In the early 1990s, Portland Water Bureau (PWB) and the city’s sewer and stormwater utility, the Bureau of Environmental Services, implemented federal compliance projects costing millions of dollars. As a result, water rates in the city rose sharply.

Portland’s City Council responded to the rising costs by directing the water utilities to find a way to reduce the impact on limited-income customers. In 1995 the utilities implemented a Financial Assistance Program for basic water and sewer services, administered by PWB. The program included one of the nation’s first discount rates for low-income water consumers.

Since then, PWB has continued to build on and improve the assistance program. They’ve gained insight into customer experiences, developed program expertise and addressed other economic challenge such as rising housing costs.

“We’re fortunate to have an incredibly supportive City Council that believes in making sure water is affordable and reducing the number of customers who are shut off,” said Adelaide Nalley, financial assistance program manager at PWB. “They’ve been supportive ever since 1994 when they said we needed to start an assistance program.” (Photo credit: Portland Water Bureau)

Along the way, PWB has worked with nonprofit low-income assistance advocates and other service providers to revise and enhance the program. They’ve addressed such barriers as lower-than-expected participation levels, mistrust and misperceptions from potential participants, and difficulty reaching multi-family housing residents who aren’t billed directly. 

In July 2018 PWB again expanded the program to increase assistance levels, adjust how they measure income qualifications, reach more eligible households and add additional full-time support staff.

“We adjusted the guidelines to include more families based on the median income for Portland, where the cost of living is especially high, as opposed to the average across the state,” Nalley said. “Our community partners are helping us expand our outreach to get the word out to those who we haven’t been as successful at reaching.”

Portland’s current Financial Assistance Program, which is paid for through city utility rates, includes the following components:
Bill discounts for low-income families based on median family income levels 
Crisis assistance vouchers up to $500 a year for eligible households experiencing financial crisis
Up to $500 in assistance per year to eligible customers in multi-family dwellings who are at risk of eviction
Emergency utility payment plans for customers experiencing employment, medical and other emergencies
Financial assistance for eligible low-income homeowners to repair toilets, faucets, plumbing and underground leaks 
Discounted onsite storm water management charges for customers who manage their storm water

“We recognize that we can’t fully control our rates because of external factors, but we can create a program that really helps our customers afford their bills,” Nalley added. “It’s really rewarding to continue to improve on our program to make it be event better. Our focus now is on outreach.”

AWWA and the Water Environment Federation partnered on a Transformative Issues Symposium on Affordability Aug. 6-7, 2018, in Washington, D.C. It brought together utility leaders, consumer advocates and other thought leaders to examine the changing affordability landscape. A booklet associated with that event and additional affordability information is available at AWWA’s online Affordability Resource Community.

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