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Water affordability is a growing concern. Over the past decade, the average residential water rate went up by almost 80% in northeastern Illinois, and many households will soon find their water bills unaffordable if water rates continue to rise at the expected pace. The City of Chicago Water Affordability Analysis from Elevate and Metropolitan Planning Council shows the state of water affordability in Chicago by using water billing data from Chicago’s residential water customers.
The study found that water burden – the percentage of a household’s income that goes toward paying water bills – in Chicago is significant. Chicago’s lowest income households are the most burdened and pay on average almost 10% of their income on their water bill, double the commonly used U.S. EPA threshold of 4.5%.
Key findings from the analysis include:
- Water burden in Chicago is not evenly distributed. Census tracts with a majority Black, Hispanic, and/or Asian population face on average a higher water burden while using comparatively less water than accounts in majority white tracts. Notably, census tracts with a majority Black population pay on average 19% of their income on water bills.
- Residential customers without a water meter generally pay significantly more for their water bill than customers with meters. In 2019, nonmetered customers in Chicago paid on average $500 more for water than metered customers. The same non-metered customers also have higher water debt and water burden.
- Water affordability is not an issue confined to single-family homes. Multi-family buildings, particularly two-unit buildings, have the highest rates of bill nonpayment and the highest levels of water debt over time.