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Cities of the unplumbed: housing inequality, racial capitalism, and the persistence of water poverty in fifty US cities

Authors: Katie Meehan*, King’s College London, Jason Jurjevich, Portland State University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Household water insecurity, racial capitalism, housing, US cities, San Francisco
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2017, nearly 460,000 households (roughly 1.6 million people) in the United States lacked piped potable water, a flush toilet, and an indoor shower or bath. Contrary to popular myth, the majority of unplumbed households (73%) are located in U.S. cities--not in rural areas far from the grid. We ask: who are the plumbing poor in U.S. cities? What patterns might we discern across and between cities? In this paper, we probe the fundamentally urban character of household water access in the United States. Drawing on quantitative and qualitative analysis of census microdata, we first develop a four-part typology to identify trends and patterns at the national scale among the top fifty largest U.S. metro areas. Results indicate that housing insecurity, race, and wealth gaps are the strongest predictors of unplumbed households, particularly in "Coastal Elite" cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We then explore these patterns in greater depth in metro San Francisco, home to the nation's largest share of plumbing poverty. Drawing on theories of racial capitalism and relational poverty, we argue that the worst injustices of Flint are amplified in the very heart of San Francisco. Water poverty in urban America is not a relic of the past, but an ongoing condition of capitalist social order, housing inequality, and racialized property making, exacerbated by new trends in dispossession. We conclude with a call for research and action at the intersection of water, housing, and social inequality--a new paradigm we call the housing/water nexus.

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