Johnny Williams wasn’t aware that his water bill had gotten this high until he received a note on his door from the city of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, warning of the looming shutoff.
The bill, which has now grown to nearly $600, is unaffordable for the 76-year-old disabled veteran, who says between living on a fixed income and health issues, he has very little to spare.
“I should have never let it get to this point, but life happens,” Williams said as he headed into City Hall on Thursday evening. “I’m just hoping they can understand that and help me out a little.”
On Jan. 2, the city began shutting off water for as many as 27,000 residents with delinquent, unpaid bills. The customers affected range from single-family residences to commercial locations.
The controversial move is the first instance in 12 years where the city has shut off services due to nonpayment.
There have been reports of an informal policy, first started during the Kasim Reed administration and continued by former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, to continue services despite the mounting bill. However, there was no formal institution of amnesty until March 2020, when Bottoms issued a 60-day grace period for customers to promote health and wellness during the pandemic.
With a service area spanning from Atlanta, northwest DeKalb County, a small portion of Clayton County and north and south Fulton County, the DWM says that over the years, it has amassed a $121 million deficiency, with $50 million of the backdated debt being attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, some residents, like Denise Duncan, feel like a shut-off after 12 years of leniency is inconsiderate, especially considering current factors like inflation and high housing costs across the metro area. Duncan was at City Hall to pay her bill, and noticed there were more residents in the waiting area than usual. Despite not being at risk of having her water shut off, Duncan was shocked to learn that the city was making a move on the issue and unaware that it would be imminent.
“The bills have gone unpaid this long, and it wasn’t an issue,” Duncan said. “People are struggling right now, and this city knows it. To layer another struggle on top of that, I just think it’s unfair.”
There are some services that the city currently provides for customers who may have difficulties making payments, like Care and Conserve and the Low Income Housing Water Assistance Program, both of which assist residents with past-due bills.
During the pandemic, the DWM also created the Flexible Levels, Options, & Affordable Terms Initiative (F.L.O.A.T) aimed at helping single-family households get back on track with their service payments. The program, which offered account adjustments, one-time grants, credits, and interest-free payment plans, ended Jan. 1.
While the city has stated that it will honor appointments made for F.L.O.A.T before the deadline, some residents who applied for the program prior to its closure are still waiting on a response.
“I applied back when I received my first notice in late October,” said Shanquita Price, a 32-year-old server and single mom of three from Adamsville. “I still haven’t heard back from them, so I thought maybe I didn’t qualify.”
Price says that any relief from the city will still be appreciated, especially coming off the pressures of the holiday season.
“I never want my kids to go without,” she said. “It’s the reason I work so hard right now to give them everything, so whatever I have to do to make sure they still have water, I will do it.”
In a statement, DWM said that it currently has “more than 20,000” accounts at risk of disconnection, but is placing “fairness, responsibility and compassion” through additional aid at the top of their priorities in addressing the needs of their customers.
“We will offer payment plans, as well as connect them with local resources for financial assistance through federal funds available via the Low-Income Water Assistance Program and DWM’s Bill Payment Assistance Programs, both managed through DWM’s Care and Conserve Program,” the statement said.
Patrice Angel, who has also applied for F.L.O.A.T, told Capital B Atlanta that she has already made five trips to City Hall in an attempt to rectify her water situation.
Angel said the issue started with a leak in late June, which led to her corresponding bill increasing over the course of nearly seven months. She consistently reached out to her insurance company and took trips to City Hall, oftentimes leaving straight from her server shift at Waffle House. Things escalated when her ceiling collapsed on Christmas Day.
“I had been calling the city, calling my insurance, telling them that this was going to happen,” Angel said. “It’s like they wouldn’t listen until my ceiling literally caved in and even now, I still ain’t seen no help.”
The lack of interest has been concerning to the Cascade Heights resident, who says life here has been characterized by lack of help for low income, Black families at the hands of majority Black city officials.
“It just always seems like we get the short end of the stick,” Angel said. “But when it’s time to vote, they are in our neighborhoods telling us everything we want to hear. Where is that same energy when we are crying out for help?”
Capital B Atlanta made several independent attempts to contact the DWM’s customer service line, but the call dropped each time before we could speak with an actual agent. We also reached out to Mayor Andre Dickens’ office for comment on the matter, but our request was diverted to the DWM.
The DWM says the accounts won’t be shut down at once. The process is expected to take several months.
In the meantime, Angel says she will continue her trips to City Hall until she gets a formal answer on what her next steps will be. Her latest trip ended with no new answers and a date to come back for a later appointment, but she won’t be deterred that easily.
“I’m not just going to let it go, and nobody else should, either,” Angel said. “I will come up here every week if I have to because I deserve answers. We all do.”