On the eastern shore of Lake Erie lies a city shaped by water. Between the commerce of the Erie Canal and the hydroelectric power of nearby Niagara Falls, massive economic and cultural prosperity flowed into Buffalo all thanks to water. Yet the future of water in Buffalo faces many challenges, from the quality of the Great Lakes Waterway to climate impacts to aging systems in need of continued investment.
"As an older industrial city that has weathered both economic shifts and population decline, Buffalo has many vulnerable communities that are disproportionately impacted by infrastructure, economic development, and environmental issues."
- Buffalo Water Equity Taskforce
Large segments of Buffalo's population already face significant financial burdens, particularly those on a fixed income like the elderly. These residents are more likely to be forced to decide between paying their water bill and paying for other necessities like housing, heating, food, or healthcare.
"Unpaid bills can lead to shutoffs, and defaulted customers who have not paid their water bill may have an automatic tax lien placed on their property."
Many residents also face housing cost burdens, meaning that 30 percent or more of their income goes towards housing. Whether they rent or own, people of color face housing cost burden at a higher rate than white individuals. The map below illustrates Buffalo's concentrated poverty in segregated census tracts.
In 2018, the Buffalo Water Board (Buffalo Water) partnered with the US Water Alliance in forming a Water Equity Task Force to develop a new rate structure aimed at creating equity between industrial, commercial, and residential customers, while considering the overall financial needs of the water system. To pay for necessary infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, Buffalo Water implemented higher water rates in early 2019.
Mindful that many residents face existing financial burdens, Buffalo Water introduced Pathways To Affordable Water as a collection of new and existing financial assistance programs including a low-income senior discount, payment plans, extended repayment periods, interest charge suspension, and leak abatement.
The Residential Affordable Water Program (RAWP) gives lower-income residents a $60-90 annual credit on water bills. Over 50% of Buffalo’s residents could qualify for the program, yet less than 1% have enrolled.
Currently, the application for RAWP is only available as a PDF which must be either printed and mailed or emailed from a computer into the Buffalo Water Authority. However, many low-income residents don't have easy access to printers and computers to complete their application.
That's where we come in.
In May, Harshita Girase and I were honored to be selected as fellows for the 2019 Code for America Community Fellowship, representing Buffalo as one of just seven cities chosen from across Code for America's 83-city national network.
"...a mobile-first web application for low-income and senior residents to enroll in Buffalo's affordable water assistance programs"
Inspired by GetCalFresh, our Fellowship project will create a mobile-first web application for low-income and senior residents to enroll in Buffalo's affordable water assistance programs. We plan to enable applicants to upload photos of any required documentation and allow case-workers and Buffalo Water employees to manage incoming applications and provide status updates.
As fresh college graduates from SUNY Buffalo, Harshita and I have a highly interdisciplinary mix of skills in project management, public policy, design, and software engineering. Luckily we also have a great group of community partners on the team who we will work closely with to connect with residents for usability testing and human-centered design research.
We’re both excited for the project to make a positive impact in the Buffalo community, and we look forward to writing more blog posts about our Code for America Fellowship experience and our progress in the coming weeks.