Families search for affordable water in Detroit

The long line for a water payment plan.

The Simpson family.

Detroit residents wait for an affordability plan.

Starting Tuesday, Detroit will resume shutting off people's water if they’re behind on their bills.

For the last month, the city has put a moratorium on those shut-offs, which have been internationally criticized as inhumane. That pause gave people a chance to get on payment plans with the water department. On Saturday, thousands of Detroiters lugged their kids, strollers and grandparents out to a sign-up fair at the Cobo Center downtown. 

Michigan Radio’s Kate Wells went down to check it out:

Want to pay your bill? Get in line, buddy.

The line is huge. You can walk 30, maybe 40, seconds and not even get halfway to the front.

There are kids sprawled out on the floor, people shifting sleeping babies from arm to arm – but no seniors, impressively. They’re allowed to cut the outside line, where they’re brought inside the fair…to wait some more.

At least there are chairs inside. Lots and lots of chairs, filled with hundreds of people waiting for their number to be called by an official-looking women with a bullhorn.  

Luna Simpson, 42, says she’s been waiting here for five hours with her grandsons, CJ and Joshua. If there was a cute kid contest at some point during this event, CJ, age 4, and Joshua, age 6, would sweep. You can’t beat matching "Iron Man 3" T-shirts.

“I told them we were going to come here, get on the budget plan so we could save some money," Simpson says. “So we could do some extra stuff with the extra money.”

Extra money for fun stuff? Not really.

“More bills!” laughs Simpson. “School clothes, gas."

The Simpson family would ideally like to let Josh play basketball this year, which, of course, costs more money.

“I wish I could go to basketball!” CJ opines.

Is it possible when he's older, maybe?

“Yes,” he says. “I’m only 4, and Joshua is only 6.”

The magic number to keep your water on: 10 percent

After their number is finally called up, the Simpson family is sent to one of the dozens of tables where water department reps are helping people work out payment plans.

“And you’re showing a balance of $399.74,” the attendant tells Simpson. “So, you would be able to go onto a payment arrangement for $39.97. You want to go onto a payment arrangement today?”

“Yes!” says Simpson.

That’s a 10 percent down payment on what she owes. It's what the water department is now requiring you pay up front, within the next two weeks, before you can get on a payment plan.

Once you’re on a plan, your water won’t be turned off — so long as you stay current on your bill.

You also have 24 months to pay off the rest of what you owe, on top of your monthly bill.

Don’t have the down payment? Uh oh.

If this all sounds more flexible than what the department used to offer, that’s because it is.  

After all the protests and UN criticism against the city turning off people’s water, city officials are bending over backwards to assure residents that they are on their side.

What if you can’t get your hands on that 10 percent payment in the next couple of weeks?

That's Vivian Logan's story. She came here because she owes $3,000 on her water bill, and she says she doesn't have the $300 she needs to get on a payment plan.

"That’s the problem," Logan says. "And even if I could get it in 14 days, I’m not going to be able to pay $300 possibly a month, on top of my other bills after that."

Now, there are nonprofits and aid groups who want to help people like Logan.

The Detroit Water Fund, for example, has at least half a dozen booths at the fair. To qualify for their help, you need to:

  1. Make that first 10 percent down payment, and
  2. Fall within 150 percent of the poverty line, which calculates to about $35,775 for a family of four.

There’s also help from the United Way, but their income restrictions are a little lower: You need to make under 120 percent of the federal poverty line.

Logan says she’s just a little higher than that cut off, and that she doesn't have money for the down payment required to get aid from the Detroit Water Fund. She has no idea what to do now.

“Who knows? You tell me,” Logan says. “You tell me who I can refer to, so I can get some help.”

For many, the day ends in relief.

"What we’ve found is that people have been able to find that assistance," says Alexis Wiley, Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff. "They’ve been able to go to their friends, to their church, family members."

Simpson is one of those fortunate people.

She looks hugely relieved as she makes that first down payment, smiling while she tells the boys what they can afford now that they don’t have to worry about losing their water: gas, clothes and, maybe, even some basketball. 

About the author

Kate Wells is a reporter with Michigan Radio.

The Simpson family.

Detroit residents wait for an affordability plan.

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