The Lower 9 senior center – based in Andrew “Pete” Sanchez Multi-Service Center – has the highest participation rate of any senior center in New Orleans. It’s a must-do stop for candidates running for any office. Seniors eat hot meals and compete at the center’s two tables reserved for cards: one for spades and one for pitty-pat.

Ribbing and laughter flow easily within the sunny dining room, overseen by Andrea Sanchez-Reese, the center’s director, who also is the daughter of the center’s namesake. But Reese’s cheerful smile drops as soon as she heard two words: water bill. 

At this point, said Sanchez-Reese, monthly charges coming from the Sewerage and Water Board surpass what seniors on fixed incomes can pay on their own, often forcing them to ask for help from children and grandchildren.

In this city surrounded by water, drinking water has become an unaffordable commodity. 

At a table nearby, two Lower 9 senior citizens reinforced that point. After Doris Paige’s house caught fire in mid-2020, she rented a nearby house while she waited for repairs. A year later, Paige, 72, received a $1,000 water bill even though the house had been empty, with no one using its faucets or toilets.

Afterward, her bill skyrocketed again, for months, because of a nearby broken water main, she said. Today, on paper, Paige owes the utility around $3,000.

Last month, Page paid $587, as she began paying back SWB. She’ll pay an extra $81 every month for the next 31 months, the time it will take to pay the entire $3,000.

Never before has it been like this for Paige, who has lived in her house since 1994, raising her daughter and granddaughter there. She came back and rebuilt after Katrina despite the house receiving 13 feet of floodwater. Now, with her water bills, she’s struggling to make ends meet.

Across the table from her, Linda Rhodes, 68, can still afford her bill. But for just two people in her house, she thinks a water bill of $80 to $90 a month is unreasonable. She’s lived at her address since 1988, she said, but in recent years, her water bills have drastically risen. 

Paige and Rhodes wonder what they’re getting for their hard-earned money. To them, the SWB is an agency defined by inactivity.

In April, a few blocks from the Sanchez Center, crews placed massive construction concrete barriers along one entire lane of North Claiborne Avenue, with a barrier that blocked Claiborne on the way to Ida Justin’s home on Andry Street. At age 77, Justin worries about the crucial time it could take an ambulance to drive the required detour.

That segment of Andry has been blocked since last spring, Justin noted, when crews from the city’s Department of Public Works and the Sewerage and Water Board began the work, described as replacing old water piping, patching sidewalks and repairing the road’s surface. Today, the project remains undone but the worksite sits idle, except for the occasional kids playing in the sand on their way home from school. “You can come back next year, it’ll be the same,” Justin said. 

Though it may not be clear in the slow pace on North Claiborne, repairs are urgently needed on SWB infrastructure citywide. According to information from the SWB website, more than half of the city’s pipes were installed before World War II, with a third of them even older, put in place before Prohibition began in 1920, according to SWB. When floodwaters covered most of the city after Katrina, it shifted below-ground joints and pipes and its salt further eroded an already-derelict system. As a result, the system began leaking 50 million gallons a day, 2.5 times pre-Katrina levels, according to a 2007 NBC report.  

Those leaks are key to the bigger financial picture. Today, more than half of the drinking water treated by plants on the city’s East and West Bank never touches a household faucet. Instead, what SWB calls “non-revenue” water, is lost through leaks. 

“That has a cost associated with it,” said Ghassan Khorban, director of SWB. “We’re unnecessarily making twice as much water every day.”

That cost is simple to calculate. Basically, residents pay double what they would without the leaks, because they are paying for the treatment of the water they use plus water that goes unused.

Even on a national level, Orleans water bills steep.

As we saw this week, when a critical water main broke, leaving much of the parish’s east bank without water, Jefferson Parish has its own challenges. In 2021, the parish council there instituted rate hikes to begin making its repairs. But still, the average monthly water bill for New Orleans is $56.88, nearly twice as much as neighboring Jefferson Parish, based on calculations using the national monthly average household usage of 7,230 gallons. 

Andrea Sanchez-Reese, the director of the Lower 9 senior center at the Andrew “Pete” Sanchez Center, and daughter of the center’s namesake. Sanchez-Reese cultivates an light-hearted atmosphere at the center. But her smile drops as soon as she hears two words: water bill.  Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

With tacked on fees, the total bills in Orleans average $115.44 per month.  

Across similar southern cities, the bills are much lower. In Houston, for that usage, the monthly toll would be $41.57; for Nashville $45.13, and for Dallas $27.60, according to Bluefield Research

If it wasn’t for the leaks, the increases in Orleans would more closely match overall national trends. The rest of the country has also experienced extreme rate hikes in water bills, amounting to a 50% increase over the past decade, Bluefield research shows. This is largely due to reduced federal funding for water infrastructure, which peaked in the 1980s and has decreased fourfold since. 

“The federal government has pretty much backed out of the business of providing federal dollars to help fund that infrastructure,” said economist and water expert Roger Colton. Now, the responsibility for maintaining infrastructure falls mainly on state and local governments, which transfer the majority of costs to local households.

In New Orleans, the Sewerage and Water Board, faced with critical levels of crumbling infrastructure, has hiked costs to unsustainable levels. Between 2008 and 2018, New Orleans water bills doubled, Colton found in a 2020 report.

For his report, commissioned by the Guardian, Colton analyzed 12 United States cities and characterized New Orleans as one of the worst cities for water affordability. And it will get worse, he said. By 2030, Colton projected that 93% of the low-income population of New Orleans will live in census tracts with unaffordable water bills.

Unaffordable bills are those that exceed 2 to 4% of income, according to Colton. For a household of three living at the federal poverty line, or $24,860 a year, any monthly water bill over $41 would be deemed unaffordable according to Colton’s metrics. Over 20% of New Orleans residents live at or below the federal poverty line.

At this point, struggling households can only hope for temporary relief. Last month in New Orleans East, hundreds of residents packed the recreation center at Joe Brown Park.

If not for his visit to Joe Brown, Joseph Ranson believed that his water would get shut off during the holidays. But the city’s utility-assistance program for renters kept the water running for his entire household. “I’m one person taking care of seven people,” he said. “It’s a relief.”

The city-run New Orleans Emergency Rental Assistance Program has hosted 15 two-day events like this every few months since 2020 when it began as a pandemic relief program. Each time, the program receives between 800 and 1,000 new applications for utilities assistance, some with water bills as high as $15,000, often the result of unresolved leaks in pipes, inflated usage estimates, or residents being forced to put off water bills during the pandemic.

Tyra Johnson Brown, the program’s director, plans on using the remaining pandemic money for at least two more events. But by 2025, she expects that the money will run out, forcing her to discontinue the program if more funding isn’t secured. 

Without help, for those with the least income, the bills will begin to build again, bringing new fears of water shut-offs. “I know our people will really suffer if they don’t have these funds,” Brown said.

Aidan McCahill reported and wrote this story while he was an intern for The Lens through the Tulane Center for Public Service.