As we've been working on an application website for Buffalo's water affordability program, a major puzzle remains unsolved that has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with policy making.

How can we assist eligible low-income tenants whose water costs are included in their rent?

In trying to better understand the people we serve, we came up with the following different scenarios that eligible residents might find themselves in:

  1. Low-income homeowners
  2. Low-income tenants who pay their own water bill
  3. Low-income tenants whose landlord pays the water bill

Scenarios 1 and 2 simply involve determining eligibility and uploading required documents, typically proof of income and residence. Applicants are also automatically eligible if they are enrolled in a public assistance program such as SNAP (Food Stamps), Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Senior residents may also receive additional discounts.

But how do we approach scenario 3?

"... this problem could affect between 28% and 54% of all our end-users."

A problematic puzzle

If the tenant is eligible based on the previous criteria, then the goal is to provide them assistance. But how do we actually get the money to the tenant?

Since the tenant isn't directly responsible for water, we can't simply apply the regular discount on the bill.

<p>How can eligible tenants receive assistance?</p>
How can eligible tenants receive assistance?

So how might eligible tenants receive assistance? Here's a few ideas:

  1. Give landlord the discount and (hope) they reduce tenant's rent accordingly. If they do, great. If they don't, how is it enforceable?
  2. Give landlord the discount only if both parties sign an agreement that the tenant's rent will be reduced accordingly. Let's presume Buffalo Water assumes no legal responsibility that this agreement is fulfilled. Perhaps the agreement nevertheless provides the tenant legal standing to deduct the water discount from their rent? However, litigation might cost more than it's worth to the tenant.
  3. Give tenant a direct cash payment. This would be the most direct route to ensure the tenant receives the assistance. We assume this could raise major legal questions.
  4. Don't give any assistance. The easiest answer would be to say only those directly responsible for the water bill can receive assistance. Yet the goal of Pathways to Affordable Water is "to ensure that everyone has access to affordable water service." Everyone includes all tenants.

How big is the problem?

The City of Buffalo's open data portal reveals this scenario is far too common to be considered an edge-case.

  • 35% of households receive SNAP and are therefore automatically eligible. However, we can't confirm how many of them are also renters.
  • 59% of Buffalo households are renters‭ (65,275 out of 110,636 total households)
  • 46% of these 65,275 are rent burdened (meaning over 30% of income goes toward rent)
  • 30,026 households face rent burdens. Let's make an assumption:
    • It is more likely that landlords pay the water bill, meaning at least 51% of these households are in Scenario 3.
  • 15,313 households is 14% of all total households in Buffalo.
  • Now let's see what portion of our end-users that represents. Since the median income is $35,494 and the income thresholds for water assistance begin at $41,850 for a household size of 1, at least 50% of Buffalo households could qualify for the program.
  • If 55,318 households could qualify, then at least 28% of all our end-users fall into Scenario 3. Depending on how many landlords pay the water bill, this problem could affect between 28% to 54% of all our end-users.
<p>Housing Profile from Open Data Buffalo.</p>
Housing Profile from Open Data Buffalo.
Open Data Buffalo. Kirk McLean and Dana Glantz.
<p>Economic Profile from Open Data Buffalo.</p>
Economic Profile from Open Data Buffalo.
Open Data Buffalo. Kirk McLean and Dana Glantz.

Now what?

At this moment, we haven't decided which approach to pursue.

Option 2 with an agreement between the landlord and tenant seems promising as I imagine it might limit Buffalo Water's liability while empowering the tenant to pursue separate legal action if required. But perhaps that's more complicated for them than it's worth.

Option 3 with providing direct cash payment could also be rather complex, particularly if we consider when a tenant might move or if the rental property is a multi-family home with a single water bill.

"... nothing to do with technology and everything to do with policy making."

More government policies ought to require implementation plans in the same way that many are required to submit fiscal impact statements. Beyond simply listing who is responsible, such a plan should include a proposed service blueprint or journey map that outlines how the policy might be implemented.

This landlord-tenant dilemma could be a perfect example of well-intentioned policy making that gets ahead of critical implementation questions. However, it's important to recognize the context and constraints that policy makers operate within.

At the start of 2019, many already cost burdened residents faced increases in taxes, garbage user fees, and water rates. The Buffalo Water Equity Task Force should be commended for recognizing and responding to these financial challenges by creating the Pathways to Affordable Water program.

The possibility that up to 50% of these eligible residents might not directly receive assistance is an absolutely critical problem that needs to be addressed. Yet this ought not reflect poorly on the policy solution, but rather reflect the complexity of the policy issue at hand.

As we work with the Buffalo Water Equity Task Force to resolve this issue, another 50% of eligible residents do have to ability to receive assistance. The larger goal is yet to be accomplished, but the policy itself still counts as a step in the right direction.

If we claim iterative development can produce better technology, then perhaps iterative policy making can also produce better policy.