CHICAGO (CBS) — The house was packed up, the inspection passed – all that was left was signing on the dotted lines.

“It’s a very tough sell,” Hamza Alkamel said about his South Side home. “It’s an undesirable area.”

His home had been on the market since April 2019, and finding a buyer by November that same year was no easy feat.

“I worked so hard to get this deal done,” Alkamel said.

In Alkamel’s zip code, homes remain on the market for a median of 61 days – nine days longer than the average house on the Chicago market in the past 12 months, according to data from Realtor.com.

After months of anticipation, closing was just within reach – Feb. 7. But the day before the deal was finalized, he received an unwelcome call.

“My lawyer called me and said, ‘You owe $61,000,’” Alkamel said. “I was stunned. I’m like, what?”

This inexplicable bill suddenly halted his plans.

According to Chicago’s municipal code, homeowners cannot sell their home until they receive a “Full Payment Certification” from the Department of Water Management stating they have paid their water note.

11-12-530 Certification of Payment

Unless otherwise provided by law or rule, a full payment certificate is required in all transfers of real property whether such transfers are subject to or exempt from the real property tax pursuant to Chapter 3-33 of this Code.  In order to obtain a full payment certificate, an application with a fee of $50.00 shall be made to the comptroller. Provided, however, if the property is exempt from the real property transfer tax, the full payment certificate application fee shall not be charged. If a full payment certificate was required and such certificate was not obtained when the real property was transferred, both the transferor and the transferee will be jointly and severally liable for any outstanding water or sewer charges and penalties that have accrued to the water account.

His previous bill paled in comparison – a meager $650, which had been paid in full the month prior.

Alkamel also hired a plumber to rule out the possibility of a leak contributing to the inexplicable bill. Once the plumber confirmed no leaks existed, Alkamel and his lawyer thought the city would quickly fix this obvious error in time for his closing.

They thought wrong.

MORE GETTING HOSED: Chicago’s Water [mis]Management

In our previous investigations, CBS 2 Investigators showed how the city hosed a Vietnam veteran with a $10,700 bill so he couldn’t afford to live in his home; charged a widow for the equivalent of what six families would use for water; and hammered a small West Side church with a $6,000 bill, even though it was exempt.

The city didn’t hesitate to hose Alkamel either.

“The water department, they didn’t even pause,” Alkamel said. “They said, we don’t care about your closing.”

When he asked the city to resolve the issue prior to his closing, customer service representatives said the earliest they could start “investigating” the problem was February 19.

“They said, ‘Take it or leave it.’”

That was their best offer – an appointment 12 days after Alkamel’s closing was scheduled.

Since the unpaid water bill prevented Alkamel from transferring the title, his buyer could legally back out of the deal, unscathed.

“All my plans just fall part,” Alkamel said.

Despite expressing the urgency his situation mandated, the city refused to compromise.

“My wife is sick,” Alkamel said. “She’s disabled and she’s getting very depressed because of the situation.”

Desperate to salvage the sale of his home, Alkamel offered the buyer a $17,000 discount just so they wouldn’t back out of the sale. Then, he contacted CBS 2 Investigators for help.

We met with Alkamel on Feb. 10 and then immediately called the city, urging them to take action.

Two hours later, he had a negative $14 balance in his account. Remarkably, an ordeal that was initially supposed to take twelve days had been condensed into a two hour process.

“It was an extremely easy fix,” Alkamel said.

In a statement to CBS 2, the city said, “an inaccurate reading was made from the resident’s water meter that resulted in a high water bill.

The Department of Finance (DOF) and the Department of Water Management (DWM) work in tandem to ensure that residents have continuous access to high quality water. In this specific case, an inaccurate reading was made from the resident’s water meter that resulted in a high water bill.  After the customer contacted the City on 2/6/2020 to question their water bill, the DOF’s Customer Service Division immediately opened a service order to verify the meter reading and made arrangements for the DWM to re-read the meter on the next day (2/7/2020).  Based on the accurate water meter reading obtained that day, a billing adjustment has been made to the customer’s account.  This billing error was addressed within two business days.

The City reminds residents that for questions about water billing or to set up a payment plan to please call 312.744.4426, and for issues related to water in your home please call 312.744.6635.

But it was too late — the buyer backed out of the sale.

Not only did the $61,000 bill make the buyer wary of the sale, but when they saw Alkamel was willing to lower the price, they asked for more deductions than he could reasonably offer.

“They saw I’m desperate,” he said.

Moreover, not one customer service representative seemed sympathetic or apologetic to the fact that his sale had fallen through because of the city’s mistake.

“I’m from the Middle East, there is no corruption over there as high as here,” Alkamel said.

The city wiped Alkamel’s bill, but larger, systematic issues still plague the billing process. Specifically, the city refuses to exercise common sense amnesty when customers contact them for assistance.

Without our help, Kerry and Helene Kohn might still be on the hook for their tenant’s outrageous water bill; Kathy Zook would still be paying for water six families use; Vietnam veteran Rodney Andrews might not be living in his home; and Pastor Veronica Day would be responsible for a bill she never should have received.

But the water billing system shouldn’t require investigative reporters to advocate for customers to get a fair bill.

To help change the fundamental issues with current water billing policies, we sent the email below to more than 100 city and state officials, “think tanks,” and others with our findings and potential solutions.

Hello:

Since 2018, CBS 2 Investigators have chronicled unfair, wrong, and potentially unlawful water billing practices in Chicago.

Our next piece runs this Sunday night. Here’s a preview: https://bit.ly/2sQTmod

Chicago billed the Kohn’s $60,120                We saved them $33,094

Chicago billed Larry Richardson $17,712      We saved him $17,201

Chicago billed Pastor Hickman $9,212          We saved him $7,200

Our initial series entitled “Getting Hosed” won 2019’s Emmy Award for Best “Political and Government” reporting. “Getting Hosed” has not yet moved policy, but it has our viewers. There are dozens more stories in the pipeline.

Water is our society’s most basic utility.  Providing safe, affordable drinking water is also the most basic responsibility of our governmental institutions.  We can look to Flint, Michigan as an example of the destructive impact when that duty fails.  With that as our backdrop, we have found in Chicago: rates have gone up 300% since 2011. 7,000+ accounts owe more than $10,000. Thousands are in arrears and can’t get construction permits, transfer deeds, therefore properties can’t be sold or improved, and therefore businesses and neighborhoods languish. 180,000+ accounts are still unmetered, guesstimates at best. Former Water Commissioner Tom Powers told CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman in 2013 that Chicago’s system was “antiquated.” Our reporting shows a continuing regression.

We’re reaching out to elected officials with the question, are you interested in reconciling this growing crisis?

Examples:

A Vietnam war hero has a nearly $11,000 bill despite never using water: https://cbsloc.al/36HZjSC

A widow is charged for what 6 families would use: https://cbsloc.al/35ETO6z

A couple, billed $60,000 for water their tenant refused to pay, all while the City gave said tenant $500k in government contracts: https://cbsloc.al/2Gf9OE4  | The follow-up: https://cbsloc.al/2vJ2A3y

Mayor Lori Lightfoot halted metering because of concerns over disturbing lead pipes. While mitigating on-going lead poisoning is critical, at the same time, a meter-freeze exacerbates the regressively of assessed billing, blanket fees, and fines. Most alarming are the city’s vacancy fees of up to $1,200 a year.

We’re asking you to watch Sunday night and respond by reaching out to me with thoughts and ideas for next steps.

Thank you.

Not a single policy maker was moved to take action.

“You’re supposed to help people,” Alkamel said.

Alkamel moved here from New York, bought then sold a home – that’s the American Dream. In Chicago, that dream is back on the market – with a $17,000 discount.

“I’m moving back as soon as I can,” Alkamel said. “You could see what they did to me, and who wants to stay here when the city treats you that way?”

Brad Edwards