What can Cleveland learn from Philadelphia’s ambitious experiment in water billing?

What is ‘administrative burden,’ and how does it affect people who need help with utility bills?

From waiting in line at the DMV to filling out paperwork to apply for food stamps, pretty much everyone will experience an administrative burden at some point in their lives.

But what exactly is an administrative burden, and how does it prevent people from getting help when they need it?

Donald Moynihan, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., studies this problem. 

Moynihan describes administrative burdens as the“hassles people experience” when dealing with government policies. Being asked to provide photos of your paycheck to get government assistance is one example; or being required to come to an in-person office visit to prove you’re a real person in another.

“Often when you ask someone about their experience with government, they’ll talk about some administrative barrier they’ve encountered: difficulty providing documents, or not getting someone on the phone,” he said.

Moynihan said the more roadblocks that go up, the harder it is for people to get, and stay on, what he calls “means-tested programs.”

Those are taxpayer-funded programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–or SNAP, also known as “food stamps”—that are only provided to low-income people and require those people to prove their eligibility. Government officials often say these requirements, like providing birth certificates and copies of bills, are needed to root out fraud and make sure the people who need the help are receiving it. 

But fraud in a program like SNAP—where somebody is receiving the benefit who isn’t eligible—is quite rare; less than 1% of benefits paid out, according to some estimates.

Moynihan and other researchers argue that burdensome, repetitive eligibility hurdles are why these programs don’t have 100% participation. It’s important to mention that these programs are also funded by the tax dollars of the very people who need them the most.

According to Moynihan’s estimates, historically:

* Roughly two-thirds of all people eligible for SNAP actually get those benefits.
* Between 50% and 70% of people eligible for Medicaid receive it.
* Between 30% and 60% of those eligible for unemployment insurance receive it.

Administrative burdens also impact people who fall behind on their utility bills.

There are programs to help: the federal Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), and Ohio’s Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP). HEAP gives low-income people one-time assistance on their bill, and PIPP gives low-income people a recurring discount on electric and gas bills.

Michelle Graff, an assistant professor at Cleveland State University, studies administrative burdens in the HEAP program. She found that in Ohio, only 20% to 25% of people eligible for HEAP actually use that program.

Loophole after loophole
It’s not hard to find evidence of these administrative burdens at play locally when it comes to these utility-bill assistance programs.

Robin Turner, who lives in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood, struggled for months to get an appointment with a local nonprofit that runs these programs. She had to submit documents several times, including pay stubs for everyone in her home and copies of her past due bills.

“When you go and ask for help, the system is intentionally set up so that they take people through all these loopholes and nothing ever happens,” she says.

Eventually she did get an appointment, but only after receiving disconnection notices from her electric and gas providers.

Graff said document and appointment requirements are common administrative burdens, and HEAP is no different. There are some unique issues with HEAP, too. For one, if you’re a renter, and your bills aren’t in your own name, you’ll need your landlord’s permission to get help.

A solution from outside Ohio
Graff thinks she has found something that could ease these administrative burdens for Ohioans.

All states have a policy in place called “categorical eligibility.” This essentially means that when a person applies for a program like cash assistance (called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the state also determines whether they are eligible for other assistance programs, like food stamps. That means the person doesn’t have to go through the trouble of applying a second time or having to set up multiple appointments.

Graff found that a number of states also apply this “categorical eligibility” to HEAP, the energy bill assistance program. Ohio does not.

And from some preliminary research of states that did have this policy, Graff found something interesting.

“They ended up having higher program efficiency, so spending less on overhead costs, administration… that in turn led to more houses on average being assisted each year by (HEAP),” she says.

Moynihan, the Georgetown professor, said states and the federal government should consider how to combine applications to help reduce the headaches people face when applying for help.

He said it would also help for the government to map out where people are running into issues, through something called “journey mapping.” That’s a method by which people are interviewed about their experiences with something, and a visual map is created, based on those experiences. 

The federal Office of Budget and Management recently created three such journey maps after doing lots of interviews across various federal agencies. Those maps showed where people ran into challenges while trying to get government assistance after a natural disaster, for example.
Moynihan said this method is a good way to help identify barriers and start to break them down. He suggested the federal government and states use journey mapping as a tool to make it easier for people to get the benefits their tax dollars pay for.

This is part one of a three-part series looking at the state of water affordability in Cleveland, Philadelphia and beyond, authored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative in partnership with Resolve Philly in Philadelphia.

If Kevina Chapolini-Renwrick couldn’t pay the $15,000 water bill, she’d lose her home.

The South Philadelphia resident began to panic when she saw the city had tacked a notice on her door threatening her with legal action, back in the summer of 2021. Her husband had inherited the property from his parents in 2007, and with it, their unpaid water bill debt.

<span class="content-image-text">Kevina Chapolini holds up a necklace with a photo of herself and her husband who died last year following a battle with cancer, from which Chapolini is also a survivor.</span>Kevina Chapolini holds up a necklace with a photo of herself and her husband who died last year following a battle with cancer, from which Chapolini is also a survivor.Tears traced the retired social worker’s cheeks as she recalled the memories tied to the simple rowhouse with beige siding, snugly tucked between its neighbors on a peaceful side street in the Newbold neighborhood.

Chapolini-Renwrick had lived in this neighborhood her entire life. It was where she hosted “Fried Chicken Fridays” for the hungry kids who lived on the block, and where she fell in love with her husband, Yvon Renwrick, who was her first and only boyfriend. And the house was where she said goodbye to him, when he died from cancer in the summer of 2020. 

“I thought, ‘I’m going to become homeless and lose the house that my husband and I raised our children in,’” she says.

Although water bills for exorbitant sums of money—the result of years of interest—had been sent to her home for years, she never paid them, or even opened the envelopes, because they were in the name of the home’s former residents. She reasoned that she only needed to pay the bills that came in her husband’s name, which she did. Diligently.

Plus, there was so much going on in Chapolini-Renwrick’s life. Lengthy hospital visits with her husband, from dawn until dusk. And she was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2021.

Still, Chapolini-Renwrick tried every avenue to stop from losing her home because of the water debt. The city was threatening her with legal action—potentially including selling her home at a sheriff’s auction—if she couldn’t pay up. She even called her state representative, who told her nothing could be done.

<span class="content-image-text">Robert Ballenger, an attorney with Philadelphia’s Center for Legal Services, heads up CLS’ Energy Unit, where he focuses on helping low-income clients keep their lights and gas on, and other utility-related matters.</span>Robert Ballenger, an attorney with Philadelphia’s Center for Legal Services, heads up CLS’ Energy Unit, where he focuses on helping low-income clients keep their lights and gas on, and other utility-related matters.Eventually she found the nonprofit Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, where she ended up “blowing up” the voicemail of Robert Ballenger’s phone. Ballenger is part of a team at CLS who work as public advocates on utility issues.

Ballenger told Chapolini-Renwrick about a somewhat new program in Philadelphia that could help her: the Tiered Assistance Program, or TAP.

TAP is unique to Philadelphia; few city-run water utilities in the country offer anything like it. It locks water rates for people with low incomes to 2%-3% of their income, regardless of their water use. Chapolini-Renwrick is one of thousands of people who participate in the program, which came about in 2017.

“Water debt is really an issue of housing and community stabilization,” Ballenger said. “And the accumulation of water debt is one of the things that can deprive a low-income family of the value of what may be their only real asset: their home.”

In Chapolini-Renwrick’s case, TAP dropped her monthly bill to $43.30—which ignores the amount owed on the past water bill debt. It’s a rate she said she can handle, even with her sole income being a Social Security check.

What’s an even bigger game changer for her, however, is the program also has a debt forgiveness component. If she makes 24 payments—once per month over the next two years – she will have the $15,000 wiped away completely.

“It’s a huge burden lifted off of me,” she says. “So now I’ve got time to heal, with my depression and with the breast cancer.”

What can Cleveland learn from Philadelphia?
Susan Crosby, deputy revenue commissioner with the city of Philadelphia, said while the city is still studying TAP’s overall impact, it has noticed a correlation between decreased water shutoffs and customers’ participation in TAP.

Curious about the reporting that went into this project? Listen to WURD Radio’s Charles Ellison interview reporter Conor Morris about this story. WURD is Philadelphia’s only Black-owned radio station, and a member of the Resolve Philly journalism collaborative.

WURD Radio · Reality Check 12.15.21 - Robert Ballenger

In order to pay for the program, there’s a small rider placed on the bills of non-TAP program participants. Philadelphia attorney Ballenger said it amounts to a “whopping” 67.5 cents per-bill on average, or about $8 per-year, per-home.

“Meanwhile, $615 a year,” Ballenger says. “That is how much a low-income water customer on average benefits by participating in TAP, with just over $50 a month on average of bill relief.”

But building out the program was a monumental undertaking, Crosby said, likely placing it out of the budget for some smaller cities. TAP’s implementation required hiring 22 full-time employees, updates to the billing system and customer service management software and creating a marketing strategy to tell customers about the program, she says.

“Once the program is off and running, the numbers kind of bear it out, though,” Crosby says. “Most utilities are going to be able to do a cost-recovery mechanism (rider) for some or all of the costs.”

Even before that though, Ballenger says TAP required a “champion” like Philadelphia City Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez to introduce the legislation, and a city administration willing to work with City Council to create and fund new programming.

The Cleveland Water Department and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District also have discount programs that provide relief to low-income water and sewer customers, called the Water and Sewer Affordability Programs.

However, NEORSD spokesperson Jenn Elting said only about 1,600 people were signed up for its Sewer Affordability Program as of November 2021, and records show a similar number signed up for its water counterpart. 

NEORSD’s 2019 rate study found that only about 12% of people eligible for the Sewer Affordability Program were signed up for it. Since people are very often signed up for both programs, according to CHN Housing Partners spokesperson Laura Boustani, the Water Affordability Program likely has a similar participation rate. 

NEORSD is trying to increase participation in the Affordability Program, and recently announced it was expanding that program. Those efforts have borne fruit; Elting said the program added about 100 people since January 2022.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, its discount program has hovered at an enrollment rate of around 25%, or 15,000 customers out of 60,000 potentially eligible households.

Cleveland, unlike Philadelphia, does not have a rate board, through which public advocates like Ballenger, the Philadelphia lawyer, can represent citizens’ concerns when Philadelphia Water proposes hiking its rates. It was partially through this board that the drive for the TAP program came about, Ballenger said, after the “failures” of the city’s old discount program became clear through the board. He said the old program typically left residents in more debt than they started with.

Cleveland does have a Water Review Board where people can dispute their bills, but that board seldom grants people a hearing, according to a report from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund.

<span class="content-image-text">Janet Gill-Cooks has gotten behind on her utility bills after losing her job during the pandemic last year, and has been struggling to catch up on them, like thousands of other Clevelanders.</span>Janet Gill-Cooks has gotten behind on her utility bills after losing her job during the pandemic last year, and has been struggling to catch up on them, like thousands of other Clevelanders.Who would benefit in Cleveland?
Things have been challenging for Cleveland Water Department customers like Janet Gill-Cooks, whose bills for her Garfield Heights home were far outpacing her limited income back in November 2021. Gill-Cooks, a 63-year-old with COPD and degenerative arthritis, has been out of work since the beginning of the pandemic. She’s been getting by on her Social Security disability check, with some help from her children and weekly trips to local food banks.

Gill-Cooks had accrued about $600 owed on her utility bills last November, and struggled to get through to Cleveland nonprofit CHN Housing Partners—which administers state and federal utility bill assistance programs – as well as the city’s water discount program.

“It’s a really hard situation when they have these resources available, and then you can’t get through because there’s so many other people needing help,” she said.
She eventually did get some help on her sewer bill, but from a different local nonprofit—Community Housing Solutions. The rest was paid off by a former local resident who read about her story. CHN, for its part, has said it’s trying its best to help people but has limited staffing capacity; high demand for its programs; and struggles to get people to re-enroll for its programs each year.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has also presented challenges for Cleveland landlords like Thomas Ren. He owns a handful of properties in the Cleveland area and said last November that some tenants at several of his properties simply stopped paying rent and stopped paying their utilities. It’s led to water bills as high as $10,000 at a single property for Ren.

<span class="content-image-text">This graphic compares various water discount programs offered by several cities throughout the country. This data comes from estimates provided by the various utilities interviewed for this story.</span>This graphic compares various water discount programs offered by several cities throughout the country. This data comes from estimates provided by the various utilities interviewed for this story.

For a rental property owner like Ren who has lost significant income during the pandemic, having a bill forgiveness component in Cleveland akin to Philadelphia’s TAP program could make a huge difference. And for single-home residents like Gill-Cooks, the price reduction based on their income would also make a big difference.

Sarah Johnson, a spokesperson for the city of Cleveland, said in an email that the city is sensitive to these concerns.

“While our most recent rate setting didn’t include expansion of our existing assistance programs, it did include no rate increase for three years (2021-2023) and one year with a minimal increase (2024),” she says. “The average (monthly) water bill for a city of Cleveland customer is $24.17. In 2024, it will be $25.58.”

Another concern is that Cleveland’s Water Affordability program is only available to homeowners, despite roughly 50% of the city’s population living in rental homes. Philadelphia’s TAP is available to renters, but with the caveat that those customers must have the bill in their own name. Johnson said the city is monitoring NEORSD’s progress after it began allowing renters to utilize the Sewer Affordability program, to see if the city should consider a similar shift in eligibility.

Philadelphia’s TAP program isn’t without its own flaws, though. You can learn more about the gaps in that program, and what Philadelphia can learn from Cleveland, in the next part of this series.

Why compare Cleveland and Philadelphia, and why does this matter?
Across the U.S., the cost of water and sewer has only gotten more expensive over the last several decades, with the average water bill increasing by 30% between 2012 and 2019, according to a utility bill index conducted by Bluefield Research

As of 2019, low-income households spent an average of almost 10% of their disposable income each month to pay for basic monthly water and sewer services, according to a study out of Texas A&M University

And in both Cleveland and Philadelphia, the pandemic and the cities’ high poverty rates mean there are thousands of people behind on their water bills.

As of November 2021, almost 10% of all Cleveland Water customers—about 40,000 customers—were behind on their water and sewer bills by six months or more, a rate that’s far higher than non-pandemic years. More than one in four Cleveland Water customers were behind on at least one bill that month, and in Philadelphia, nearly a third of customers were at least one bill behind in March 2021.

Despite a significant difference in population size, the city of Cleveland isn’t so different from Philadelphia. The water systems that serve both cities are municipality-owned and serve a wide geographic area, with the Cleveland Water Department servicing about 440,000 accounts and the Philadelphia Water Department servicing almost 500,000.

Crystal M.C. Davis, vice president of policy and strategic engagement for the nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes, said her agency commissioned a study of water and sewer rates across Ohio in 2019, and found that the key issue at play was not necessarily how expensive water prices have become, but rather, one of income inequality. For some people who are struggling to make ends meet, water is always going to be unaffordable – and will become more unaffordable as rates increase and wages remain stagnant.

Meanwhile, the city of Cleveland and others cities like it continue to put liens on people’s homes for past-due water bills, a practice which disproportionately impacts people of color, according to a report from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. The city of Cleveland still faces a lawsuit in federal court over those practices.

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s (NEO SoJo) Making Ends Meet project, and a continuing effort to report on the burden of water bills on low-income Clevelanders. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland. Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Email him at cmorris40@gmail.com.

Conor Morris
Conor Morris

About the Author: Conor Morris

 Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Morris covered Appalachian southeast Ohio for the weekly newspaper The Athens News for six years. He reported on Athens County, but especially local government, the campus of Ohio University (his alma mater), cops and courts, and the social and economic issues facing the residents of Ohio’s poorest county. Morris helped guide The News toward two Newspaper of the Year awards in its division of the annual Ohio News Media Association Hooper Contest. Morris himself won six first-place Hooper awards for his reporting over the years, including for a story series about police and hospital failures in a sexual- assault investigation in Athens. Morris was born in Marietta, Ohio.