University of Texas and Austin Water Research How Public Utility Can Support Racial Equity Through Policies, Services

The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture recently participated in a Community and Regional Planning practicum with Austin Water to research how the public utility can support racial equity through its policies and services.

“Historically, racial equity has been viewed as a separate domain and is not central to water policy and operations,” assistant professor Miriam Solis said. “We’re seeing a shift in utilities recognizing the community and economic implications of their work.”

The partnership between the researchers and Austin Water looked at three programs and policy areas:

  • Austin Water’s Customer Assistance Program (CAP);
  • the implementation of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI); and,
  • the design and recruitment of a career program for individuals formerly incarcerated.

The CAP program is designed to help low-income individuals afford the increasing price of water bills. Austin Water is one of only 228 of 795 utilities in the U.S.  to offer such assistance, but the project discovered that the program “unintentionally excludes some communities by offering discounts for low-income residents in single family housing, but not those living in multifamily housing.” According to the report, 52% of Austin’s Black households and 43% of its Latinx households live in multifamily units. The report recommended that the utility conduct targeted outreach, adopt a “mix of eligibility processes,” and gather demographic information. Austin Water has stated it will be “seeking council approval late this fall on a multi-family CAP discount program.”

Austin Water is also currently piloting AMI which  includes digital water meters and associated wireless communication networks. The AMI expects a number of advantages, such as conservation and better prediction of water demand, but water rates could increase up to 15%. The students recommended that Austin Water communicate with customers to give them the opportunity to adjust water consumption as needed; introduce flexible billing options; and, provide custom water-usage alerts. Due to these recommendations, Austin Water is implementing an Equity Action Plan in parallel with the pilot rollout.

The report also recommends a reentry program for individuals who are formerly incarcerated. After evaluating reentry programs in other cities including Philadelphia, Atlanta and Little Rock, AR, the students recommended that Austin Water: identify positions and career pathways suitable to reserve for returning citizens; consult returning citizens to design and manage the program; budget for a reentry program; and, partner with the city’s equity office.