A proposed class action lawsuit has been filed over what five plaintiffs allege is Cleveland’s “draconian” policy of placing liens on properties with overdue water bills.
According to the 39-page lawsuit, thousands of Clevelanders are impacted each year by a lack of water due to “unaffordable and often erroneous bills” that cause “rampant service shutoffs.” The plaintiffs argue that Cleveland’s apparent water bill lien policy disproportionately affects black residents, who, as of 2017, make up roughly 51 percent of the city’s population, the case states.
“Through Cleveland Water’s water lien policy, the City of Cleveland discriminates against Black residents, disproportionately placing them at risk of foreclosure and eviction in violation of the FHA and the Ohio Civil Rights Act,” the lawsuit alleges.
The plaintiffs allege Cleveland “erroneously and arbitrarily” overbills many customers who must then bear the burden of additional, illegitimate water charges. According to the suit, many inaccurate bills may be related to water meters incorrectly installed by the city.
Worse yet, the complaint says that while there exists a process for Clevelanders to contest their water bills before a review board prior to service shut off, the city’s water department “does not notify customers of their right to appear” before the board to dispute incorrect charges. In instances when a customer does request a hearing, the case claims, most disputes are deemed “resolved” with neither a billing adjustment nor hearing. Those whose water is shut off by the city are ineligible to have a board hearing to dispute their water bills, the complaint argues, adding that Cleveland’s “unjust and arbitrary” water billing has all but robbed residents of their right to procedural due process and equal protection.
At the heart of the suit are the liens allegedly placed on the properties of customers who fall behind on their water bills. The plaintiffs aver that many Clevelanders’ properties have diminished in value and are at risk of foreclosure and eviction due to unpaid water bill liens. Per the complaint, causation exists between the number of water bill-related liens placed on Clevelanders’ homes and the number of residents who went into foreclosure during a recent period:
“From 2014 to 2018, Cleveland Water placed more than 11,000 water liens on properties in Cuyahoga County. During that same period, nearly 6,000 residents found themselves in tax foreclosure. On information and belief, many of these foreclosures were the result of unpaid water debt.”
The suit alleges Cleveland’s water bill property liens, which the plaintiffs describe as the city’s “ultimate enforcement tool,” are wholly unfair in that while a little more than 30 percent of Cuyahoga County residents are black, more than 60 percent of those with property in the county and who were hit with a water lien between 2014 and 2018 were black. The lawsuit additionally claims that while about 60 percent of Cuyahoga County’s population is white, “only 29.5 [percent] of residents living in a Census block with a water lien during this time period were white.”
According to the plaintiffs, the discrepancy in the number of water bill-related liens issued to black and white residents surpasses any income-based boundaries.
“The disparate impact of Cleveland Water’s water lien policy on Black residents exists independent of income,” the suit claims. “Even comparing neighborhoods with the same median income, water liens are disproportionately placed in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Cuyahoga County compared to white neighborhoods.”