Shutoffs for Philadelphia residents behind on their water bills start again on May 31, but new rules protect large categories of Philadelphians.
As this year’s extended winter shutoff moratorium lifts, households with children, seniors, and people with disabilities are protected from disconnection.
“We doubled down this year and doubled the amount of people who were categorically protected because we understand how important it is for our customers to have access to water,” said Susan Crosby, deputy revenue commissioner at the Philadelphia Water Department.
Starting May 31, people who have owed more than $1,000 to the Water Department over at least two billing cycles could see their water service terminated. Most customers facing disconnection have already received notices that indicate the exact date their shutoff could occur.
The Water Department has sent out shutoff notices to around 5,000 customers in the last few weeks, Crosby said, more than one thousand of which have prevented shutoffs by entering into a payment plan, enrolling in an assistance program, or identifying with a protected category. Far fewer people are facing shutoffs than in years past, Crosby said, thanks to federal grants earlier in the pandemic and shifts in the Department’s policies around disconnections.
Normally, the moratorium on non-payment-based shutoffs for residential customers is from Dec. 1 to April 1. This year, the Water Department extended the pause in order to ramp up outreach around its assistance programs, identify eligible customers through cross-checking enrollment in other programs such as Medicaid, and roll out the extended protections, Crosby said.
“No one who can’t afford to pay their water bill should have their water service disconnected,” Crosby said.
Through the end of 2023, households with a child under 18, a senior age 65 or older, or a person with disabilities — regardless of income — are exempt from disconnections. Customers the Water Department has not already identified as protected from shutoffs through its data matching effort can contact the Water Department through a new “Raise Your Hand” initiative, which allows families facing disconnection to self-identify as a protected category with no documentation required.
“We understand that it can be difficult to provide necessary documentation in a timely manner,” Crosby said. “So we want to make it as easy as possible for these vulnerable customers to get the protection they need.”
During the rolling 12-month period in which protected households are exempt from disconnection, their water bill balance will continue to increase if they don’t make payments.
“This is not a free pass to not pay for your water,” Crosby said. “Anyone who can afford to pay their water should pay their water. But we want to make sure that children and seniors are living in homes with water service.”
The Water Department has several assistance programs to help customers pay their bills. These include the Tiered Assistance Program and the Senior Citizen Discount. Enrollment in either of these programs protects a customer from a shutoff.
Customers can also avoid a shutoff by setting up a payment plan, and those with a medical need can get their shutoffs delayed.
Some households facing shutoffs can get utility grants from UESF.
Families facing disconnection have 35 days from the date of their shutoff notice to the date their service is terminated. Water Department officials recommend calling as soon as possible to prevent a shutoff, by enrolling in an assistance program or payment plan, or identifying with a protected category.
“Once you get in the Tiered Assistance Program, you get a set bill that is lower, and you can afford to pay it every month,” said Water Department spokesperson Brian Rademaekers. “So that’s a lot better than just ignoring it, letting your debt build up, and paying more for water than you need to.”
Reach the Water Department to prevent a shutoff at 215-685-6300, email@example.com, or in person at the Center City Municipal Services Building (1401 JFK Blvd.) or the Northeast Municipal Services Center (7522 Castor Ave.).
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
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