A national civil rights organization says Cleveland’s water department applies tax liens for unpaid bills disproportionately in majority-black neighborhoods in Cuyahoga County.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said its full report, which is expected to be released in June, will examine what it calls a crisis in water affordability in black communities.
The organization released a summary report Wednesday showing 11,000 liens were attached to properties between 2014 and 2018. In most years, around two thirds of the liens were in majority African-American census tracts.
“What our report does is try to make a very clear connection between rising water bills and unpaid water debt and the potential impacts on black homeownership in Cleveland,” NAACP LDF Senior Counsel Coty Montag, the study’s author, said.
Mayor Frank Jackson’s office and Cleveland City Council responded to the report in a joint statement calling tax liens a “last resort” to collect delinquent balances.
“Generally, tax liens are used for collections after extensive efforts to work with customers on payment plans, tenant deposit agreements or other mechanisms have failed,” the city’s statement says. “This process involves certifying balances to the county tax bill for collection when individuals pay their taxes, however, Cleveland Water does not foreclose on homes.”
Montag said that Cuyahoga County has the power to foreclose on such properties. An ideastream review of recent sheriff’s sale data showed that at least several properties owed unpaid water bills as part of larger delinquent property tax balances.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, which takes properties through tax foreclosure, does not generally foreclose on homes solely over water liens, communications director Ryan Miday told ideastream.
Twice a year, the city generates a list of customers with unpaid bills of at least $300 and at least 180 days of delinquency, Cleveland Public Utilities Director Robert Davis said. After sending notices, he said, the city adds the balance to the property’s tax bill.
“A lot of times, it’s more about absentee landlords and all of those things,” Davis said, “when you have delinquencies over six months, where the water’s been shut off and then we’ve heard nothing back.”
The number of water liens has grown over the last several years, spiking in 2016 at more than 4,400, according to a post on the water department’s website. Jason Wood, chief of public affairs for Cleveland Water, said the city changed its notification process in 2017 and the number of liens fell.
The city did not increase water rates in 2016, 2017 or 2018, according to the statement, and offers discounts and payment plans for customers who are behind on their bills. Rates increased this year and are expected to go up again in 2020, according to the department’s website.
The NAACP LDF also criticized the city’s water review board, which hears billing complaints. According to the report, the board held 33 hearings in 2018, despite receiving 207 hearing requests. Of those requests, costumers and the city settled 112 cases before the hearing process began, Davis said.
Montag agreed that a number of cases were resolved prior to the hearing date, but said the scope of the issues with the review board are broader than simply resolving what is actually a comparatively small number of cases.
“We’re still very concerned that so few hearings are held, and that so few are requested,” she said.
Between 2010 and 2017, there were more than 40,000 water shutoffs in the city of Cleveland, according to an examination of water expenses by American Public Media and Great Lakes Today.
Low-income residents, senior citizens and customers in crisis can quality for discounts. Less than one percent of the Cleveland Water shutoff notices went to customers using a discount program, according to the APM and Great Lakes Today analysis. Those programs are not available for renters.
The cost of repairing old infrastructure has driven up water and sewer bills across the Great Lakes region, the APM and Great Lakes Today analysis found.