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NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Cleveland Water policies lead to devastating loss of home ownership

Cleveland water lien
Posted at 10:58 PM, May 21, 2019

CLEVELAND — The nation’s premier organization advocating racial equality and economic justice has found the Cleveland Division of Water engages in practices that “may lead to a devastating loss of home ownership” and “disproportionately impact people of color”.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, founded in 1940, litigated the landmark Supreme Court case striking down racial discrimination in public schools, and it released this 16-page document Wednesday about the water affordability crisis in America's cities.

The NAACP LDF says its report provides a “framework for potential litigation” saying “litigation may be viable and appropriate to address municipal water practices” emphasizing “the human right to water" may provide a valuable framework for litigation in challenging unfair water practices.

The study examined water rates and policies in Cleveland and Baltimore and explored the “explicit link between race and water affordability” offering policy solutions for affordable, clean water as a right that should be shared by all.

It found “municipal discrimination in the provision of water services runs deep."

In Cuyahoga County, the NAACP LDF says "most water liens placed on homes in Cuyahoga County are located in majority-Black neighborhoods, which may lead to a devastating loss of home ownership in these communities."

The report credits “Ron Regan and his team." The 5 On Your Side Investigators have uncovered a series of issues with the Cleveland's water department over the past decade.

Our initial reporting on extensive billing problems first began in 2008 and continued for years as the water department revamped its billing system.

Then, again in September 2015, we revealed how the department was spending tens of thousands of dollars--- to promote itself as water rates began increasing.

Woman lost home after water lien
Cleveland woman lost home after water lien

It quickly brought a deluge of complaints from water customers complaining of being billed thousands of dollars for water they never used, failure to be informed of their rights before a water review board and most alarming—the widespread practice of issuing water tax liens on homeowners that can lead to foreclosure.


The NAACP Legal Defense Fund says it “hopes to equip water equality advocates with sufficient context and background” and “ways to challenge and change local government actions that impeded Black access to water and sewer systems”.

Key findings:

*Clear connection between racial residential segregation and Black access to water systems
*Water tax liens in Cleveland in majority Black neighborhoods
*Water and Sewer lines can directly lead to foreclosure and eviction

The report concluded that “when appropriate, litigation and legislative reform should be aggressively pursued to tackle water injustices in communities across the nation”.

Recommendations to be pursued at local, state and federal levels:

*Ban Water Lien Sales based on unpaid water or sewer bills
*Bar utilities from terminating water or sewer service
*Require customer assistance programs for low-income and vulnerable populations
*National legislation guaranteeing a right to affordable clean water

The City of Cleveland Division of Water and Cleveland City Council released a statement on the water affordability report released from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund:

At Cleveland Water, we strive to ensure everyone in our community has access to safe drinking water and shares in the economic, social and environmental benefits of our system. This is something we’ve been focusing on for some time. Water equity is so important to us, we put it in our mission statement and have created values to support that mission. We also joined the US Water Alliance Water Equity Taskforce--a network of six cities that work together to build a more equitable water future.

Locally, we are continuing to analyze data and evaluate our operations to ensure we are doing everything possible to keep customers in water service. This work is helping us identify particular parts of our service area where a larger portion of customers need our help."

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