A few years ago, Kimberly Armstrong got a water bill for $1,414.
That was way more water than her house in Baltimore, Maryland, could have used in any given quarter—and exponentially higher than the average water bill in the city, which was around $90 per month (or $270 per quarter) last year. "There's only two people in my house," she said. "I'm not bathing an elephant."
It only got worse from there. Disputing a water bill in Baltimore, like much of the country, means jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Armstrong recalled having to show up to municipal offices in person, wait in line, fill out forms, and give testimony, among other tasks.
Meanwhile, since they didn't receive her payment for a faulty bill, Armstrong said, the city of Baltimore put her home up for tax sale—a system that allows local governments to sell property.
Five years later, Armstrong is still dealing with an accumulated water tab over $5,000. But she finally has some things working in her favor: Late last year, Baltimore became the first large city in the country to effectively ban privatization of the local water system, which critics have long charged make bills even higher. And in April, the state of Maryland banned local governments from seizing property when people don't pay water bills. Both of these laws provided some protection as she worked to correct a nightmarish saga.
But the situation in Baltimore is a relative anomaly in a country where people can go into debt so extreme over unpaid water bills—even incorrect ones—that they lose their homes. In the United States, access to water is a commodity rather than a basic human right protected by the government. American water systems can be public or private, depending on local history, geography, and politics—the cost of water can change on a whim if cities sell their systems to corporate entities, including those connected to Wall Street private equity firms. Municipalities can also shut off water to thousands of residents without fear of legal retribution, an imbalance of power that disproportionately affects communities of color and rural people.
What has emerged, experts and advocates said, is an overly financialized system that can gouge people into oblivion—that is, when it doesn't poison them to death. But just as some Americans, especially on the political left, have been pushing back against profit incentives for healthcare, higher education, and other essential services in recent years, more Americans are asking where their water comes from, and why.
"Think about how far we have wandered as a community and lost our way in determining what is public and private in terms of our responsibilities," said Peter Hammer, a law professor and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Now we fight over what is a public good. In my mind that's very dangerous—you can't get any more basic than water."
In a particularly sinister example of what happens when people can't pay their water bills, 8,000 people in Flint, Michigan, were told their homes were at risk of foreclosure in 2017 because there was confusion around what they owed, according to a report released last week by the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. This despite the city still dealing with the aftermath of a devastating contamination crisis that some scientists said made thousands of people sick.
"There's no sort of federal recognition of a right to water," said Coty Montag, senior counsel at the LDF and author of the report. Which is to say people often don't have a straightforward mechanism to argue that a bill is inaccurate. That's not only unfair to residents, critics say, it's also a violation of due process.
Baltimore's push for fair and public access to water ramped up in 2015, when the city threatened to cut off water to 25,000 residents who hadn't paid their bills. In that same year, 8,000 people were cut off from water altogether—forcing some to seek other housing options with water access, even as they tried to dig their way out of debt. This can lead to families being broken up; sometimes, people are forced to leave cities altogether.
"Baltimore has classic, east coast, 200-year-old water infrastructure that hasn't been repaired," said Rianna Eckel, a senior Maryland organizer for the Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group. And with poor management and no funding, things just got worse. "Sewer lines were backing up into people's basements. People were getting erroneous $80,000 water bills. It created the perfect storm."
The public also caught wind of the fact that the city was in talks with huge corporations bidding to buy into the municipal system. While an infusion of capital to make repairs and bolster quality might have been appealing, it could also have raised the cost of water, since private systems tend to be more expensive, critics say. Anger over the situation intensified, and residents and activists soon formed the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, eventually forcing the city to retreat from plans to initiate mass shut-offs. That was just the start: Public hearings were held, and new legislation was crafted foreshadowing the statewide ban on selling homes over unpaid bills. Despite resistance from some policy wonks and water companies that had been bidding to work with the city, Baltimore's citizens voted to ban the privatization of its water and sewage systems in a 2018 referendum.
As politicians were making these structural changes, Armstrong said, she banded together with other residents and tried to help homeowners tackle the complicated process of getting their fees waived. Eventually, she joined a local pastor, who was dealing with exorbitant water bills at his church, to plan a class-action lawsuit against the city.
"The young people are a lot more aggressive and understand this," Armstrong said about the activists in the coalition. "They know how to get the status quo out of the building."
What happened in Baltimore makes it an exception, but the reality of a city's residents losing their homes because of unpaid water bills is not. And the situation is most stark in communities of color.
In 2014, Detroit, a majority-Black city, terminated water services to 44,000 homes, according to Montag’s report. Those people were forced to buy bottled water and bring home buckets of it from car washes in order to continue living in their homes. Flint, which ignited public outrage when at least 90 people got sick and at least a dozen—and perhaps many more—died from contaminated water, is also largely a community of color. (Last week, all criminal charges were dropped against officials accused of negligence in that case, though they could be prosecuted later.) "[This is] archeological evidence of structural racism," Hammer said of the general dynamic at play.
In Philadelphia, another historically Black city, the local government has set up an income-based water payment plan for its public water system, which has helped curb threats to homes and property. "It's a user-triggered process," said Scott Moore, a political scientist focused on environmental sustainability at the University of Pennsylvania, one he suggested largely seems to work. Pittsburgh has considered its own privatization ban amid crumbling infrastructure issues. Meanwhile, California is the only state with a "right to water" act, though it has yet to be rendered more than symbolic with Baltimore-style reforms.
At the federal level, President Trump supported a law last year that incentivizes private companies to get involved in public infrastructure, part of a larger agenda critics have argued could speed the privatization of water systems. On the other hand, a progressive wing in the Democratic Party, personified by figures like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren, has served to resist corporate investment in core services like healthcare and education. Sanders sponsored the WATER Act earlier this year, a bill that would funnel federal infrastructure funding into water systems across the country.
But Moore said the idea that public water systems are better isn't always enough to execute them well. While most people value clean water, and are willing to pay for it, he said, some private companies have, in fact, yielded better results than public systems—the flush of funds can fix corroded pipes and clean up aging infrastructure faster than cash-strapped municipalities.
"If you can solve some of the governance questions and have rules put in place to make sure private companies don’t gouge people with price increases," he said, "there's a chance it could work."
Threading that needle calls to mind some of the country's most heated national debates. Public water systems, in a way, are akin to battles over Medicare for All and free college tuition. The question is: What side will Americans, who are more open to Socialism than they were in previous generations, land on?
As Kimberly Armstrong geared up for her class-action lawsuit, she was less focused on ideological warfare than water bills that kept stacking up: $800, $1,500, $2,000. But she had no plans to back down.
"Water is something that shouldn't be capitalized on because it's a necessity," she said. "I'm going to keep eyes open and my ears wider."
Moore said people like Armstrong will affect the upcoming presidential election next year, with clean water becoming a bigger issue than it has been since the 1930s. Especially with Black voters in states like Michigan and Ohio, he said, politicians will need to provide a way forward for communities often reeling from shutoffs.
Meanwhile, Detroit is still home to at least 10,000 families without regular access to waterlines. What happens with America's water systems will determine more than the fate of its cities, Hammer agued. It will determine what is considered a public right that the government is responsible for providing.
"If we can't figure it out for water, I'm not sure we can do it for anything else," he said.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Ankita Rao on Twitter.