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One More Way The Pandemic Is Hitting The Poor Harder: Water Bills

Deborah Bell-Holt stands outside of her home in Jefferson Park near Downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 21, 2021. Having fallen deeper into utilities debt as she took in family and friends during the pandemic, Bell-Holt fears her water will be shut off. (Shae Hammond for CalMatters)
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At least 1.6 million California households, or one in eight, have water debt and could face shutoffs when Gov. Gavin Newsom ends the state of emergency.

Unlike other utilities, California offers no statewide water bill assistance. Fewer than half of Californians get water from a system that offers any. Most smaller systems can’t afford to. Those that do provide limited help to few people, like San Francisco, where just 4.5% of eligible customers get aid.

The result: less than 20% of low-income households receive any assistance. Water disconnections plagued Californians long before coronavirus — at least 500,000 people experienced shutoffs in 2019, according to an estimate from the California State Water Resources Control Board.

“We were already very concerned,” said water board chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel, but the pandemic has “further unearthed the stress cracks.”

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South Los Angeles is at the epicenter of the crisis. While average debt is $500, at least 155,000 households — mostly in Los Angeles — owe more than $1,000.


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