Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Thousands of local residents rely on assistance from the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) to pay their water and sewer bills, recent data from the utility shows.
SAWS offers assistance to customers who need help paying for water and sewer services, including an Affordability Discount Program, which offers discounts between $4.62 to $24.50 per month based on income and household size, as well as discounts for senior citizens and those with disabilities. The anonymized data, released to the Rivard Report by SAWS, shows active and new affordability assistance accounts for residential properties since the start of the affordability assistance programs in 2010.
Since 2010, nearly 30,000 affordability assistance accounts were opened in San Antonio, the data shows. The total number of active affordability assistance accounts increased by 140 percent since 2010 to September 2018, from 2,061 to 4,944, according to the data. The total number of accounts peaked in 2017 when 8,886 accounts were active.
The map below shows the total number of affordability assistance accounts opened since 2010 for each zip code.
In 78207, west of downtown, 2,895 affordability accounts were opened since 2010 – the largest number for any zip code in the city. Several Westside neighborhoods also show high numbers of affordability assistance accounts relative to other neighborhoods.
The rise in the number of people applying, and qualifying for, affordability assistance could be due to SAWS's recently revamped outreach efforts to residents having difficulty paying their bills, said Gavino Ramos, vice president of communication, external affairs, and conservation at SAWS.
"I'd like to think the need was always there. We’re just doing a better job of reaching out to our community," Ramos said. "Before the process was: If you needed the help, you’d come see us. We shouldn’t put the onus on the customer to find us. We should make ourselves more readily available to help."
Water affordability is not only a local problem, it's also a national concern for water utility systems that raise rates to keep up with the costs of maintaining aging infrastructure or introducing new water sources. Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution reported the average monthly residential water bill rose by 50 percent since 2010, a faster rate than incomes, as a result of increasing infrastructure costs for water utilities.
That puts many at risk of no longer being able to afford their utilities bill, according to a 2017 study published by Michigan State University in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed science journal. The study found 23.5 percent of all U.S. households are at risk of being unable to afford water rate increases.
The study ranked Texas 22nd out of 49 states for the highest percentage of census tracts in which large proportions of the population are facing difficulty paying for water utilities.
In December 2017, City Council approved a 5.8 percent water rate increase for 2018, and a 4.7 percent increase in 2019 – an average increase of $6.39 over two years. Ramos said SAWS addresses affordability issues created by rate increases by ensuring the budget for affordability assistance programs grows at the same rate.
"We work to identify the folks [a rate increase] is going to affect the most," he said. "We try to create our affordability accounts to match the rate adjustments. Not only the dollar increase, but also an increase in the efficiency of our programs."
The Michigan State study found several "high-risk" and "at-risk" census tracts in San Antonio where median incomes are not high enough to afford future increases in water rates. High-risk areas track to much of the city's inner urban areas, the far South Side, and a couple pockets on San Antonio's North Side, according to the study.
In October, SAWS plans to unveil a new program aimed at simplifying the application process for affordability assistance. The project, called "Uplift," will allow SAWS to determine applicants' eligibility for several programs based on a universal application, rather than requiring a separate application for each program. Ramos said the program will improve the efficiency of SAWS's outreach and bring greater awareness to the parts of the city where residents need the most support.
"Every [affordability assistance] application isn’t a piece of paper, it’s a family," he said. "The fact that our numbers continue to increase shows that we’re going to the right locations."