Today, the city of Chicago’s water utility rate is nearly three times higher than it was in 2007, and costs will continue to increase for consumers as the city implements a new water and sewer tax to shore up the municipal pension fund. Beyond Chicago, other municipalities in the region have increased rates, putting a disproportionate strain on low-income and minority communities. Other cities in the Midwest, such as Cleveland and Detroit, have seen similar increases. Given these increased costs, nonprofit affordable housing owners who fail to reduce their water use risk long-term financial and operational challenges. Buildings that continue to operate with inefficient water use could see considerable increases in water utility costs. If housing providers do nothing at all, inefficient properties could become financially unstable in the future, and owners may defer maintenance to keep up with monthly utility bills. And, ultimately, low-income residents may experience decreased housing quality.
Enterprise Community Partners (Enterprise) and Elevate Energy are working to develop solutions that will help affordable housing providers mitigate the impact of increased water rates. As a first step, the team launched the Chicago Water-Efficiency Pilot in 2016. A water-efficiency specialist visited 14 affordable housing properties across the Chicago region, providing recommendations to organizational decision-makers, along with light training and procedural recommendations for maintenance staff.
Findings from the pilot suggest that affordable housing providers can benefit greatly from comprehensive water-efficiency improvements, including usage monitoring, leak repair, and upgrades or replacement of inefficient shower heads, toilets and other fixtures and appliances. Based on the pilot’s limited sample, implementing the recommended upgrades and repairs would save about 22 percent in water and sewer charges, or more than $20,500 per property over five years. Within two-and-a-half years, the savings are, on average, estimated to exceed the cost of the upgrades and repairs. Using in-house maintenance staff to make the repairs would further increase the return on investment.
Although the industry has more to learn about identifying and implementing water-efficiency best practices in multifamily affordable housing, the team’s initial findings through the Chicago Water-Efficiency Pilot suggest that such efforts can help financially stabilize properties and ensure financial viability for housing providers in the face of rate increases. The benefits should encourage multifamily housing providers, government agencies and philanthropic organizations to invest in comprehensive water-efficiency strategies that strengthen the supply of well-designed affordable homes nationwide.