The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) this week filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Cleveland, alleging discriminatory practices by the Cleveland Water Department.
The lawsuit brings claims under the Fair Housing Act, the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment, the Ohio Constitution, and the Ohio Civil Rights Act and challenges several of Cleveland Water's policies that the suit claims disproportionately affect predominantly black census tracts.
Among these policies are overbilling and erroneous billing, shutting off water with little or no notice, and both not communicating the appeals process at the Water Review Board and denying legitimate claims for relief. Another is Cleveland Water's practice of converting unpaid water bills into liens on customers' properties.
The LDF reports that Cleveland Water placed more than 11,000 water liens in Cuyahoga County between 2014 and 2018, and that "significantly more" were located in majority-black census tracts than in majority-white tracts, "even when comparing neighborhoods with the same median income."
“For years, black Clevelanders have been plagued by excessively high water bills, service shutoffs, and the risk of losing their homes due to water liens,” said Coty Montag, the lead attorney on the lawsuit for LDF, in a statement provided to the media. "Cleveland Water must change its practices to ensure that all residents have access to clean, affordable water, a basic human right.”
LDF is currently representing five area homeowners in the suit who have been on the receiving end of Cleveland Water's policies. One of them, an East Cleveland resident named Albert Pickett, has been living without running water in his home since 2013, but still owes, by his own account, "thousands of dollars" and has not been permitted to dispute the charges.
The City of Cleveland would not respond directly to the lawsuit, saying that it had not yet been "formally served" as of Thursday afternoon. But they did direct us to a statement from May, in response to the publication of an LDF report on water affordability in Baltimore and Cleveland, also written by Montag.
In that statement, the city said that water equity was important to them and that they were continuing to analyze data to ensure they were doing "everything possible" to prevent water shutoffs.
The city said it had implemented zero-percent rate increases in 2016, 2017 and 2018; billed the first 1,500 gallons of water each month at a discounted rate; offered multiple discount programs to assist customers; and provided payment plans to help customers who are behind on payments. These efforts, along with a transition to monthly billing, led to an overall decline in water disconnections, according to the city.
In the case of shutoffs, the city said its policy was to "send multiple notices, including leaving a card on the floor," and that information regarding how to request a Water Review Board hearing were included in those notices.
The city described its usage of water liens only as a "last resort."
"Most commonly, the tax lien process is used when property owners – many times absentee landlords – have walked away from their property, leaving the community with an abandoned home and Cleveland Water with no other collections recourse."