Story by Max Blau | Photo by Dustin Chambers
Before the sun rose this morning, Chiliquila Ogletree had water on her mind. As she did most mornings, she poured gallons of water into a large pot, warmed it up on the stove, and dumped the water into a pair of plastic storage tubs filled with soap. After calling one of her granddaughters into the kitchen, Chiliquila washed the parts of her back she couldn’t reach. Once that grandchild dried off, Chiliquila had the next grandchild in line climb into the second tub. Chiliquila, meanwhile, scrubbed down the first tub so that her other two school-bound grandchildren could get clean. All this had to be done before the bus pulled up outside at 7:10 a.m.
To get it done, Chiliquila purchased bottled water from the store — not because she wanted to, but because there was no other choice. Her house has no running water.
The novelist James Baldwin once wrote, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." In Atlanta, even water exemplifies the high cost of being a low-income family. Home to the highest median utility costs in all of America’s 100 largest metro areas, water, gas, and electric bills exacerbate the effects of poverty in a city where income inequality ranks among the nation’s widest. With more cities facing the inevitable expense of replacing aging water infrastructure, a cost often passed along to taxpayers, researchers estimate nearly a third of all Americans might struggle to pay for water bills by 2020.
The Ogletrees have re-engineered much of their lives around a lack of running water. Caring for six grandchildren, her sick husband, and aging mother, Chiliquila was crafty enough to engineer a routine without water from the faucet. But creating workarounds has cost her lost precious hours — not to mention dollars — even though the United Nations has declared that access to clean drinking water is “essential to the [realization] of all human rights.”
“We haven’t had running water in so long,” Chiliquila told me. “The kids got accustomed it. But I don’t want them to be accustomed to it.”
A couple weeks after Dustin Chambers and I published “The Redemptive Love of Chiliquila Ogletree” in The Bitter Southerner, a narrative about the Chiliquila’s “second act of parenthood” on Atlanta’s west side, a reader sent me a direct message on Twitter. She was taken aback by the fact that someone in America — let alone Atlanta — was living without running water.
“Does the house have running water yet?” she wrote. “If not, what will it take?”
Since then, I’ve spoken a few times with Chiliquila about what it would take to get the taps flowing again. The Ogletrees have now lived without running water for two years. She spoke about the prospect of getting it back — using the word if, not when — as if the taps might stay dry for another two years, or longer.
“It is quite a lump sum,” Chiliquila recently told me. “Probably too much.”
Chiliquila is the first to acknowledge the Ogletree family fell behind on the water bill. Her house is located at the top of Sunset Avenue, the west Atlanta street where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once lived. In the first few years she lived there, from 2008 to 2011, the monthly water bill was usually somewhere between $15 and $60, according to city records. After she married her husband, Burt, in 2012, the monthly bills started surpassing $100. Those rising costs seemed understandable: More and more of her six grandchildren had moved into the house. Soon, though, her monthly bills contained several massive charges — $895, $563, $434, $478 — larger than any amount of water they appeared to be using. She filed a dispute with Atlanta’s watershed-management department. Chiliquila remembers making small payments to remain in good standing as she tried to resolve the issue.
By early 2012, the outstanding balance had grown to nearly $2,000. But no one in the Ogletree family remembers seeing city workers come out to check the meters. The family stopped getting updates. Sometime after that, Chiliquila received a letter from the watershed department. As she remembers it, the letter claimed the problem didn’t lie with the city’s pipes. Uncertain what to do, the family used running water only when absolutely necessary. That strategy didn’t work well, looking at her bills. During a four-month period in 2015, the city charged $4,500 to the Ogletree family account. Her late balance grew so large that instead of the city charging a monthly late fee of $5, it charged 5 percent interest on her bills, including one for $112.42.
“I called every week, and every week, and every week,” said Chiliquila, who wanted to pay the city back. “Then it was every other week. Then it was every month.”
On August 23, 2016, watershed workers drove to her two-bedroom house and removed the water meter, used to measure usage. Talk to folks at the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, which serves over one million customers a day, and they will say that the department removes water meters only after every other option — bills, late fees, phone calls, door hangers — has been exhausted. The total bill was now $21,885.63.
While this story is about payments, it’s also one about how the choices of bureaucracy — the red tape, slow customer service, and big-picture policies — can unintentionally exacerbate inequity. While Chiliquila tried to do right, only to be frustrated by insufficient recourse, the city was helping others.
This past spring, the Atlanta City Council approved the write-off of $9.2 million in “uncollectible” water and sewer bills. The Watershed Management Department decided it would not be able to get 284 customers who had racked up balances of more than $10,000 to pay those sums. Rather than keep pursuing it, they’d take it off their books as an unrecoverable loss.
Many of the 284 accounts were tied to individual homeowners, but they also included shell companies for real estate investors, a restaurant owned by a large corporate chain, and a condo association in one of the city’s most affluent communities. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook expressed his displeasure with the routine process that happens every few years.
“Every time these things come through, we grit our teeth and go over it again,” Shook said.
The week the City Council approved the $9.2 million write-off, I emailed the watershed department, asking for Chiliquila’s water bill records going back a decade. I wanted to understand how a water bill for a single house — one that, with fewer than 1,000 square feet, is about the size of an average Atlanta rental — could grow so large. I wanted to know how it happened. It took at least 10 follow-up emails to get those records.
Three months after I first reached out, Watershed Management Department spokesperson Rukiya Campbell confirmed Chiliquila’s balance. In that email, Campbell also acknowledged Chiliquila’s house did have a leak that was the city’s responsibility. They were willing to adjust $15,192.29 off the bill. Chiliquila’s remaining balance? $6,693.34. And if Chiliquila applied for the department’s “care and conserve” program, she could potentially get up to $1,000 in financial assistance, bringing the balance down to $5,693.34.
The city’s practice of writing off some bills beyond accounting principles has some benefits. Two years ago, the owner of a West End chicken wing restaurant had opened a location where the previous tenant had an outstanding $18,000 water bill. The city wrote off a portion of the balance. On the east side of town, the city wrote off $15,000 in water bills for the former home of Marco’s Pita on Ponce de Leon Avenue, perhaps clearing the way for another new restaurant to open near the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail.
But while Mohamed Balla, deputy commissioner of financial administration for the watershed department, points to some programs to help families behind on their bills, including a biannual “amnesty” program that sometimes waives late fees, families like the Ogletrees who need the program the most don’t always hear about it.
“Under this administration, the intent is to take a keen look at expanding affordability programs,” Balla told me last week. “We’re looking, as a utility, at what can we do to address poverty?”
When I told Chiliquila about my conversations with the Watershed Managed Department, this was the first she heard of the potential adjustment. She sounded relieved at the prospect of not having to pay a five-figure water bill. But she was frustrated the watershed department failed to inform her of the $15,000 adjustment directly.
“It’s become an everyday struggle,” she told me. “I buy water every day to make sure we have enough.”
Because of the outstanding bill, the Ogletrees have had to rely on a more expensive source of water. Most days Chiliquila purchases bottled water by the gallon to use in the kitchen. By her estimates, her family spent roughly three times as much on bottled water than they did on the city water.
Now, the spokesperson told me, the Ogletree family could take advantage of a 36-month payment. Chiliquila wondered: Why didn’t she know about it sooner? Had Chiliquila been told she would only have to pay a fourth of the $21,885.63, she could’ve taken steps to set up a payment plan and get the water turned back on. But no one told her. From the early-morning baths to family dinners, their lives were still impacted daily by the outstanding balance. To this day, she feels the weight of water on her shoulders. Soon, she intends to follow up on the department’s offer for a payment plan, hoping someday that weight will be lifted.