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Pulitzer Center Update March 22, 2022

Behind the Story: When Water Debt Hits a Community

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WBEZ traces a decade-long trend to uncover how city policies and programs drive water debt...

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Multiple Authors

First come letters from law firms requesting money, then calls from collections, and then the court appointment. An increasingly larger number of Chicagoans are burdened by water debt, collectively owing, $421 million in water bills.

Over several decades the cost of water in Chicago has skyrocketed with a variety of measures implemented by both the Rahm Emanuel and Richard Daley administrations. With 31 Freedom of Information Act requests, archival research, and extensive community outreach, Pulitzer Center grantee María Inés Zamudio and her team uncovered how this system came to fruition and who is most affected by it.

This investigation explores the experiences of those directly impacted by the privatization of water debt in Chicago. Zamudio was able to further contextualize this reporting both historically and analytically for readers.

Pulitzer Center Outreach Intern Katherine Jossi spoke with Zamudio about her expansive multimedia investigation with WBEZ Chicago and the importance of reaching the communities most impacted by this reporting.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Katherine Jossi: Can you tell me how this story first came to be?

María Inés Zamudio: I spent most of 2018 working on an investigation looking at the cost of water and whether that cost was affordable to people who lived close to the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes is essentially the largest supply of fresh water in the world. We wanted to answer the question of whether or not, with climate change, people who live closest to this great resource had access to water. We started doing research around water rates, and how those had increased over the last decade. We looked at water shutoffs, as a marker for whether or not people could afford their water bills. We did this analysis in multiple cities including Chicago, Cleveland, Duluth, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Detroit. I published that work with American Public Media, [and] when I came to WBEZ, I brought that project with me. We ended up doing a story for the region and then a specific story for Chicago. At the time, there was a municipal election in 2019. The two top candidates for mayor basically said on the record, we're going to implement a water shutoff moratorium. When Mayor Lori Lightfoot came into office in May of 2019, she implemented it.

In the process of continuing that reporting, in 2020, I asked whether there were any residents in the city of Chicago living without water during the pandemic; the city said no. I knew there were people who had their water turned off, and were never able to reconnect. The city created a working group, a collaboration between the city and nonprofits. Together they worked to help people get their water reconnected and then helped people pay for major repairs. There were people who didn't have the money to make those repairs. That's what that partnership did.

As I'm reporting on all of this, I am getting emails and calls from residents telling me, “I heard your story on water shutoffs. I'm facing this terrible situation with large water bills. I'm getting all these letters from law firms. I don't know what they're about.”

I started working with women, including Sylvia Taylor and Carla Paget, who were featured in my work. I looked through their documentation, and I started filing FOIAs to understand the city's system for dealing with water debt. I wanted to understand how we got to this situation. I looked at the structure for how this system was created back in the 1990s by Mayor Daley. I wanted to understand the scope of the problem. That's where all the data came from. I also didn't want to make it complicated. It's a bit boring for people who are not dealing with this issue. It was important for me to feature the women that I did, because they became my reporting partners. One of the things I want to highlight is this investigation has always been centered on community.

I was interested in trying to figure out how to collaborate with these women on how to not only get information for myself, but I was sharing all the information with them. Every time I would get records, I would share it with Sylvia and Carla. It became a collaboration in which they provided a lot of key documentation that helped me understand the system. That’s where the Pulitzer Center came in, because the Pulitzer Center supported my work around community engagement, which is new to WBEZ folks. They had done some work around it but we didn't have a dedicated team.

One of the main parts of community engagement that we did was when a delinquent bill is not paid for a specific amount of time, the finance department moves that bill to what is called an administrative hearing process, that quasi-government agency [which] is like a court system. This is where folks can have an opportunity to challenge their bills. What I was seeing in that data is that the vast majority of the people had gotten a default judgment, meaning they never showed up, they just got the judgment. It was difficult for me to report that part of it without tackling the question of, did people know what this was about? We distributed a simple survey that asked, do you owe money, have you fallen behind on your water bill? How long has a debt collector called you? Did you know about or did you hear about the administrative hearing process? It was about understanding that.

KJ: Could you talk a little bit about the reporting process for this story? 

MZ: I had an idea about what I wanted the project to look like. I had an idea about what I wanted to do to make sure that the people that were most impacted by this issue had access to the information. That's how I built a model around this. I have to give credit to the folks who believed that this could be done because we hadn't done this before at all. They had to believe in the fact that I could do it. Early on, I had a conversation with Matt Kiefer, [our] data editor. He was coming into WBEZ as a new hire, and a friend. I said, “This is what I'm working on, I need you to get on board because I think that we can really create something unique, that can be used as a model for other similar work at the station.” He believed in the project.

Once Matt was on board, he brought Charmaine Runes. We talked about the structure of the data, what we needed while we were waiting and about what we wanted the end product to look like. During the summer, we were not only reporting, but getting people to volunteer to help me do the surveys. We went to festivals, libraries, block clubs, and a bunch of different places.

That takes a lot of effort. When we finished the investigation, and built the platform online, Charmaine Runes, our designer, and I were talking about how to make this content accessible to people. That's why we started with Carla’s bill so people could see how it worked. It gave people a better understanding. It was built mostly for digital, for the phone. We knew that the people who had experienced the most water debt lived in areas that had low rates of internet connectivity. We created a postcard that we sent out to 18,000 people who had been enrolled in a payment plan in 2021. We sent out the postcards with a QR code where they could scan it, and read the investigation on their phone. I was thinking about how to make sure that this story gets to the people who need the information the most. Now we're working on workshops. I'm going to present, along with other folks, information that's useful to people. We’re going to create a resource fair with organizations that help people deal with water debt.

There are a lot of moving parts to this [project]. We're still working on the workshops. We're going to have one in April. I am negotiating with the city because I want a representative from the city to come. One of the things that came up in the reporting is that the city doesn't have a ton of transparency with people dealing with water debt. We felt at the very least allowing people to come to this meeting and ask the city directly their questions, that's progress.

We're thinking about another fully bilingual workshop together for the summer. All of the surveys and the investigation were published in Spanish. For me, it's not enough to do investigative work, it's crucial to make sure that we're reaching the communities that are impacted by this.

KJ: Do you think that problem of debt and private collections will arise with other utilities? Do you foresee this being a bigger problem beyond water debt?

MZ: There's a couple of things. Cities like Detroit have a robust water rights advocacy community. In Chicago, when I first started working on this back in 2018, there really wasn't one. I was trying to find folks who had had their water turned off to interview and include in the story, and I did a lot of door-knocking in places like Roseland and Englewood. I had data by ZIP code. There weren't a lot of people talking about access to water versus heat for example. In Chicago, there are programs to help people who can't afford their heating bills. There's an agreement around not turning off the heat or electricity during the winter months. There was nothing like that for water. It was interesting to see how awareness has morphed into something unique because now there are organizations working on issues of access to water.

Do I think that debt problems are going to expand to other utilities? It’s already happening. People have lost a lot of income during the pandemic. Heating bills specifically are expensive. It [heating bills] has always been one of those things that people write about because it is an issue in the same way. For the first time, people include conversations about water within that realm.

After the investigation was published, Governor [J.B.] Pritzker made available millions of dollars of grants for people who were at risk of getting their water turned off or owed more than $250. Cook County created a similar program from stimulus money that came from the federal government during COVID. This money was specifically geared towards paying for utilities; it wasn't just heat and electricity. Now they're including water bills.

KJ: Was there anything that surprised you while researching and reporting on this story?

MZ: I think it's important to sort of pinpoint what the problem is. That’s what made this reporting interesting to me. What I loved about it is that I actually went back to the archives, from the [Mayor Richard] Daley administration. I was fascinated by the memos that went back and forth about going after people who didn't pay for their water. There was great archival audio that our librarian found where Daley is talking about how he wants to turn the water off for Chicago Housing Authority residents. This is back in the 1990s or 1989, and he's talking about it casually, like, “Well, if you don't pay for your water? What do you expect?”

It’s interesting to see how in all of those instances Daley was talking about using water bills as a way to get money for the city. Then [Daley’s successor] Rahm Emanuel implemented the water and sewer tax to fund the city's troubled pension plans. It was important to not only showcase the problem but to help people understand that it didn't just happen by accident, [but] that it was intentional.

I think that [historical context] is sometimes missing in journalism, because it's hard to get at. Yes, this is the problem. But how did we get here? I loved working on that because it was eye-opening to see some of the conversations that were going on behind closed doors with Daley and his team. All the people who started the administrative hearing process, also wrote this paper that I included in my story, because I do think that part of our work is understanding systems, how things are created, how laws are passed, and also the unintended consequences of those laws.

KJ: How did you build a distribution plan around the communities most affected by water debt? Why was it important to you to formulate such a plan?

MZ: An opportunity came, [and] I was able to get some data from the city that came from the debt collectors. In that data, there were full addresses. We had not had luck with that. When I found [the list], I knew that we couldn't use it for normal reporting purposes but we could use it for a potential distribution model. I was thinking through what other people have done in the past. 

Curious City digital audience engagement producer Maggie Sivit joined the station (WBEZ) last year. She sent me a kind note about how much she liked my reporting. That’s when I decided to meet with her and tell her about my ideas related to distribution. Sivit designed the postcard that was mailed.

My strategy was to get buy-in from people who already believed in this work. I reached out to her [Maggive Sivit] and because this is during COVID, we met up at a park. We talked, and I told her what I wanted to do. I would love to figure out a way to reach these people who I know are enrolled in a payment plan. She was on board, and we worked on it together. She created an interesting design. Then we worked on headlines that would grab people and that you would feel connected to. We did a lot of back and forth around which headline we should use.

[The postcards] were fully bilingual. I'm proud of that—it's not typically what reporters think about but because I spend so much time in these communities, I know that they need it. They need this information and it is not up to them, it's up to us.

We also published a smaller version of my investigation at the Chicago Sun-Times, which has a wide audience, particularly with Black and Latino communities in Chicago. That was instrumental for us getting the word out.

KJ: Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with community groups and how to get the right information to the right people?

MZ: I had been doing work around access to water during the pandemic. I had been working with groups who had done things like delivering water. They had multiple events that I attended. From that, we had a lot of communication. These organizations were also meeting with the city, and they became my sources as well to continue reporting on the story. It worked because there was a partnership of mutual understanding and mutual respect. We need to do a better job doing this. What has been really instrumental in making sure that I'm communicating with them is that I'm being transparent with them. That helps build trust. What I mean is having conversations with people at every step of the way, because an investigation can take a long time.

A lot of it was checking in with people, so that folks don't feel like they're being used. There's a lot of distrust, particularly in the Black and Latinx communities, when it comes to reporters coming into their communities, and there's a feeling of, 'Is this reporter here to just take trauma, to then do a story for a white audience?' I was honest with them about what I wanted and what I was working towards. I was honest about the challenges and they were honest with me about their distrust and we worked through it.

KJ: Do you think the distribution model of this project will inform future reporting projects?

MZ: For me, absolutely. What I have done my entire career is showcase that you can't say no all the time. Thinking about how to do things differently is not difficult because I live on the outside. I'm not part of the traditional newsrooms—I'm just not. I'm a Mexican immigrant that moved to the U.S. when I was 11 years old, and I'm queer.

It becomes easy for me to think about—how do I want to do things differently? What are some of the things that I love about journalism that work? What are some of the things that I want to push? What are some of the things that I want to explore? I hope to focus on the things that I can do.

I have seen the challenges facing the industry. I feel like the tide is changing as journalists get more comfortable with exploring experimentation. That’s the thing that brings me joy and restores my belief in journalism. How do we take the great aspects of journalism and transform them into something that is meaningful for everybody? We are going to have to stop journalism that is centered on white folks. We just have to, there is no survival in that model. That's why I'm so grateful for the Pulitzer Center, because they have supported my work from deported veterans to vaccine distribution. To me, it’s about how we build on this momentum. That's the thing that I'm excited about.


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