CHICAGO (CBS) — Getting Hosed,” as a news series goes, is a household name — except for one noted Chicagoan. 

“I don’t stay up long enough to watch the evening news, but obviously if there’s an issue we’ll respond to it,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot told CBS 2 at a May 27 press conference.

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Since 2018, the CBS 2 Investigators have chronicled Chicago’s unfair and potentially unlawful water billing practices. “Getting Hosed” started with one couple billed $58,000 for water they didn’t use. Every bill we’ve examined thereafter has been drastically inflated and the City department whose taxpayer-funded responsibility it is to provide safe, affordable drinking water has utterly failed consumers and undermined our investigative efforts at every turn. 

 

For our latest Getting Hosed expose, the CBS 2 Investigators dug into issues with vacant, unmetered properties and the regressive billing policies that lead to inflated water bills. 

Chicagoan William Ceniti owns two properties, a mere 25 feet apart. Both are boarded up and both are vacant. The only difference? One has a meter, which means its water bills are based on actual water usage. The other, like 180,608 other properties in Chicago, is unmetered, meaning its bills are based on property size and plumbing fixtures, not how much water William consumes. 

“Every six months — boom boom boom boom — until it adds up. And that’s the way the city is with no meter,” William said. 

Although William hasn’t used a drop of water in either since 2008, his unmetered property has been hit with an $8,000 bill. The total water charges for his metered property? Nothing. 

“The City works in crazy ways,” William said. 

Crazy is an understatement. The only way for William to stop billing on his unmetered property with the jacked up bill, is to register it as vacant.

The City started its vacancy registration program back in 2010, yet very few property owners are privy to this rule. Moreover, this rather obscure program costs property owners thousands every year, and oftentimes, the registration fees exceed the amount of the bogus water bill. 

According to Chicago’s municipal code, to register a property as vacant the owner must shell out a minimum of $600 every year just to inform the City that the building is empty. Then they are required to fork up thousands more to board up the property, insure it, and hire a watchman. Finally, they must keep the grass trim and the property in tip-top shape — if not, they’ll get hit with additional penalties. 

“It seems like they make these laws to go after people for more money,” William said. 

Chicago makes millions on this program. Through a public records request we found one owner who has paid $18,000 just to declare his building vacant.

In an effort to see how Chicago’s program compared to other major cities across the United States, we reached out to their buildings’ departments. We found that Chicago’s minimum $600 a year vacancy fee to be incalculably higher than metropolises like New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Seattle, which all charge nothing to register a property as vacant.

“It gets you mad. It gets you really, really mad,” William said. 

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And he’s not the only one miffed by these regressive billing policies. 

Plamen Yordanov is a struggling artist, truly, struggling. He has to collect rain and snow water to wash his hands because his building has no pipes, and therefore, no water. But despite using no water since purchasing his building, his unmetered property has a $7,000 bill. 

“It’s out of logic,” he said. 

Plamen moved to Chicago from overseas with the dream of transforming this South Side building into a non-profit art center. But until his water bill is paid he’s unable to obtain permit to start renovating the property. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time Plamen has had to fight City Hall. 

Back in 2016 his vacant, pipeless, waterless property had a nearly $50,000 bill. The City eventually wiped it and documented the building as vacant and not receiving water, but in 2018, his bills started piling up again. 

“They have the knowledge we don’t have water — it’s cut,” Plamen said. 

Like many of our Getting Hosed victims, Plamen was tired of fighting.

“Who I’m dealing with it’s too strong, I’m no match,” he said.  

For more than two years the CBS 2 Investigators have been fighting an uphill battle with a City that touts transparency while simultaneously stonewalling our inquiries at every turn. 

At a press conference this May, we asked Mayor Lori Lightfoot about the City’s refusal to respond to any of our questions

Her response: “I’m not aware that the water department won’t address your specific questions. I think they have been extraordinarily cooperative.”

Not exactly our experience. On March 25, 2021 CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards filed a public records request. Legally, the City had 10 days to respond. It’s now 121 days later and we still have not received those documents. 

As for William and Plamen’s bills, we fixed them both. Since the City refuses to answer our questions on properties, we submitted public record requests to see what went wrong. 

Turns out, a simple building inspection was all it took to determine William wasn’t using any water. For Plamen: proof that his water has been off for years was found in a City employee’s junk mail.

“According to the City, we are not important. That’s how I understand it,” Plamen said. 

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What the City fails to understand is that these are human beings — real people getting hosed.

Brad Edwards