While the water crisis unfolding in Flint is perhaps the most egregious example of austerity in recent memory, it is part of a larger emergency developing nationally. In 2014, Detroit became the first major American city to enact mass water shutoffs, with 46,000 poor households receiving disconnection notices that May. And in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and other cities, consumers face steep price increases in their water bills. These shutoffs and rate hikes can be traced back to one common source: Wall Street.
Baltimore is one of the most visible examples of how dangerous financial deals with Wall Street can push a city over the edge into crisis. In April 2015, just days after Baltimore began shutting off water to households that were behind on their bills, Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while he was in police custody. This set up a bitter irony: As activists drew attention to the routine dehumanization of black and brown bodies by law enforcement, the majority of shutoff notices went to homes in predominately black neighborhoods. By May 15, 1,600 homes had lost their water.
In addition to the shutoffs, residents of Baltimore and its surrounding suburbs have also endured rate hikes amounting to 42 percent in just three years. To justify the surge in cost to consumers, Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow pointed to delinquent bills totaling $40 million, saying: “We want to make sure all of our citizens pay their fair share.”
But what Chow failed to disclose is that responsibility for this debt does not entirely lie with residents. In fact, Baltimore has given away much more than $40 million to Wall Street to pay for toxic interest rate swaps. These toxic swaps are complex financial instruments that banks pitch to government entities—often without proper explanation of the risks involved—as a way to save money on infrastructure projects. And so, facing both crumbling infrastructure and falling revenues (due in part to declining federal support for infrastructure projects), many water department officials signed on.
Baltimore punished vulnerable residents for a crisis they did not cause.
But in 2008, when Wall Street crashed the economy, and the massive risks associated with these deals came to light, cities across the country found themselves owing banks millions of dollars. And because of termination clauses written into the contracts, local governments could not get out of the disastrous deals without paying high penalties to the very institutions that caused the crisis. Baltimore had used toxic swaps in conjunction with auction rate securities, a type of very risky variable-rate bond. So, by the summer of 2015, Baltimore had paid banks nearly $56 million in interest payments just for water and wastewater swaps, and another $43 million in penalties. The grand total for all the city’s swaps, not including the huge losses on the city’s auction rate securities, came to nearly $200 million.
Even though only about $15 million of the $40 million in delinquent water bills was attributable to residential accounts, Baltimore shut off water to more than 3,000 residences, many of whom were among the poorest in the area. In contrast, by mid-July, only two businesses had experienced shutoffs. And so, in adopting the traditional austerity rhetoric of “paying their fair share” and “shared sacrifice,” Baltimore punished vulnerable residents for a crisis they did not cause, leaving wealthy corporations unscathed and even free to profit anew.