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The City Shut Off Their Water. Now, These Black Residents in Atlanta Want Answers.

Affected customers who spoke with Capital B said they received little to no communication before losing service.

The city of Atlanta's Department of Watershed Management began shutting off water in February. More than 27,000 customers with delinquent, unpaid bills were placed at risk of disconnection. (Felix Kayser/Getty Images)

The water leak at his home first began in the summer of 2019, as far as Nick Aaron can recall. He didn’t know exactly where the leak was, but says it sounded like his water was constantly running after flushing the toilet or using a faucet.

Aaron first reached out to a plumber, who told him his water meter indicated there was a leak. From there, he decided to reach out to the city of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management directly to rectify the problem. 

Each time Aaron reached out to DWM for help, he kept track of the encounter. According to Aaron, the DWM would say it was sending a technician to look at the issue, but no one ever came. 

“I was consistently reaching out to them, and they couldn’t or wouldn’t fix the issue,” he said. “I have emails, call logs, times where they just didn’t respond. I kept documentation for this very reason.”

By the time Aaron’s water was shut off in February of this year, the bill had accumulated to over $3,000 in backdated debt. Prior to his service being disconnected, Aaron said he received no communication from the DWM that service at his primary residence would be disconnected. 

“They never knocked on my door or posted anything on it,” Aaron said. “I’m the type of person who keeps extensive documentation, so I would recall if they did or not.”

It was initially reported that the city would begin disconnecting water service for more than 27,000 customers with delinquent and unpaid bills on Jan. 2. The controversial move was the first instance in 12 years where the city has shut off services due to nonpayment, affecting customers ranging from single-family residences to commercial locations.

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 deficit, with $50 million of the backdated debt being attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents from those affected properties told Capital B Atlanta they received little to no warning from DWM or the city prior to their service being disconnected. In addition to the lack of communication, customers said their calls to work with the city on financing and other resources to address the issue went unanswered.

‘A charity no one asked for’

There have been some reports of an informal leniency policy that goes back to former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration. That policy required services to stay on, no matter if the bill had been paid. In March 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms instituted a 60-day period of amnesty in an effort to promote health and wellness. 

“Access to water is paramount in the prevention of COVID-19 or any infectious health threat and no one should be deprived of this fundamental resource because of an inability to pay,” Bottoms said at the time.

Residents from affected properties told Capital B Atlanta they received little to no warning from DWM or the city prior to their service being disconnected. (Catherine McQueen/Getty Images)

To aid those experiencing financial hardships during the pandemic, DWM 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 offered account adjustments, one-time grants, credits, and interest-free payment plans ranging from six to 24 months for residents with a minimum outstanding account balance of $300. F.LO.A.T. also provided services for customers who experienced financial challenges, addressing field service requests and correcting billing errors. The program kicked off on July 28, 2022, and ended Jan 1, 2023. 

The DWM says the disconnection process begins when customers receive a bill with their balance printed in red to notify residents that their account has become delinquent. 

From there, residents should receive a door hanger notifying them of the pending disconnection with information for a dedicated customer service line to connect with for financing options. If the customer does not resolve their bill after receiving the first notice, a second door hanger with a disconnection date is placed on their door.

Sylvan Heights resident Cheryl Yancy worries that with inflation, senior citizens could be hit particularly hard by the forthcoming shutoffs. The 67-year-old’s water was cut off on Feb. 22, with an outstanding balance of $4,226, after receiving a disconnection notice on her door back in December 2022. Yancy doesn’t recall receiving any mail or communications on her door prior to that.

“I live on a fixed income, so when things happen, it’s not like I have a whole lot of money to spare,” Yancy said. “I had a leak in my pipes, and the city told me they couldn’t fix it because it was inside my home and not the water meter.”

Yancy also said that she attempted to apply for F.L.O.A.T. before it was ultimately terminated, but available appointments were scarce. 

“It was like everytime I called, they couldn’t get me in for an appointment,” she said. “I would have applied for other aid had the department told me I had more options, but no one was actually helpful.”

Lack of clear guidance for help is what Mozley Park resident Terrance Parker experienced. Parker moved into his current home in August 2019, and three years later he received a delinquent bill addressed to the former tenant.

“When I moved in, the water was already on, but I have lived in apartments where water is usually included in the rent, so I thought that was normal,” Parker said. “Then, one day, I received a bill for $4,000, and I was shocked because I knew there was no way I did that.” The bill also came with a notice of disconnection if Parker didn’t settle the balance in a timely manner.

First, Parker reached out to his landlord, who told him that it was the responsibility of the outgoing tenant to turn off water services prior to the move-in date. With the previous tenant in the wind, it was left up to Parker to reach out to the DWM.

Parker had no luck getting someone on the phone, so he went directly to the DWM office at City Hall in Downtown. There, he was able to work out a payment plan to get his $4,831 balance down over time. “I had to go up to their office to actually get some answers,” Parker said. “In the meantime, they turned my water back on.”

Parker says while he was willing and able to pay the bill, he doesn’t understand why the city has decided to terminate services now. “My thing is, if the city wasn’t enforcing payment for 12 years, why now?” Parker said. “The real question is why was it allowed for bills to go unpaid all this time? How do you start a charity no one asked for, then decide one day to collect?”

Still looking for answers 

As it stands, Aaron still has no water service at his residence and has yet to hear from the DWM.

The DWM previously told Capital B Atlanta that currently more than 20,000 accounts are at risk of disconnection, but the department is using “fairness, responsibility and compassion” in addressing customer needs. 

“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.

As the disconnection process continues, the DWM says it will continue to notify affected residents with updates. “​​All pertinent information has been and continues to be posted on our website, social media platforms, monthly [Neighborhood Planning Unit] meetings, and the DWM water bill insert,” the statement said in response to customers who say they’ve received no communications. 

Customers who are facing a pending disconnection can contact the DWM directly at (404) 546-WATR (9287).

In the meantime, Aaron says he will be waiting to hear back from the DWM with answers on how he can move forward to get the water back on at his property. 

“I’m here every day,” Aaron said. “If they come knocking, I will be ready to answer my door.”

Are you an Atlanta resident who has been affected by the shutoff? We want to hear from you. Reach out to our community engagement reporter, Sydney Sims, at