Amid water shutoffs, Detroit residents struggle

Marketplace Contributor Jun 3, 2015

Amid water shutoffs, Detroit residents struggle

Marketplace Contributor Jun 3, 2015

When you get home tonight, you might grab a fast shower before dinner or maybe after the gym. You’ll wash some dishes, brush your teeth – all things that take tons of water.  California has been thinking about that with its current drought.

But they’re thinking about water in Detroit these days, too. That’s because the city is resuming mass shutoffs, again, for possibly thousands of people who are behind on their bills.

When these mass shutoffs started last summer, it made national news, then international news – at one point even the United Nations got involved.

So when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan rolled out his plan to address the shutoffs last August, he started out by saying, essentially, ‘water isn’t free.’

“I don’t know how to filter water and pipe it from the river to somebody’s house, at no cost,” he told reporters at a press conference. “Right now, it is other Detroiters paying for it. And there are a lot of Detroiters paying a water bill who can’t afford to be paying other people’s bills as well.” 

So Duggan offered a different solution: payment plans. People could pay off what they owed the water department a little bit at a time, so long as they stayed current on their new bills.

But, Duggan stressed,“You have to stick to the payment arrangements. We’re not going to make a payment arrangement with you, and then a month or two later you don’t pay.”

But here’s the thing. That’s exactly what happened.   At one point over the winter, nearly all 24,000 or so of those households that had signed up for the payment plans had fallen off. Just 300 of them were current.  Every other household was at least two months late. Andrea Malone is one of the people who’s fallen off the payment plans. She’s a single mom, and she says her nine-year-old daughter has been in and out of the hospital in recent months.

“I missed a payment because I had to pay another bill,” Malone says, sitting on her couch on a warm spring morning. “It was either pay the water, or pay the electricity, or buy food, or pay her hospital bill. So I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul!”

So today, Malone’s calling the water department. Like a lot of people, she’s trying to get back on that payment plan now that the city is once again shutting off people’s water. The city says about 30,000 Detroit households are on payment plans. More are signing up each week now that the shutoffs are back. Even so, about 18,000 households are late enough and owe enough to put them back in shut-off status.

Malone is OK for now — she’s still got some time to pay down her total balance, which turns out to be more than $500. Malone says to get back on the payment plans, she’ll try to borrow money from her ex, or maybe pawn her DVD player. But then what? 

When asked if she feels like she can actually stay on the plan this time, she says no. “Not really. Like I said, it’s tough. It’s either pay the water bill or get it shut off. And I can’t be without water. So, I’m struggling.”

So right now it kind of looks like there’s a cycle happening in Detroit: the city shuts off people’s water, so people get on payment plans. But then people fall off the payment plans. And the city shuts off people’s water. It’s no secret that the payment plans don’t look like they’re working out. 

Detroit’s city services director Gary Brown said so during a city council committee meeting last month: “We’re telling you, the plan was not successful. Based on what we’ve all agreed success should be measured by.”

So what Brown suggested at that meeting is something new: it’s called an affordability plan. In other words, charging low-income people less for their water. 

“Because that really speaks to the poverty that’s going on in our city,” Brown says.

The city council has put together a work group exploring this idea.  Councilwoman Janee Ayers says the city has to figure something out. “We can’t have that many people without water. I can’t sleep at night knowing that.”  

But the city’s legal department says this all could get very messy. It points to a Michigan law that says city rates have to be based on the cost of service — not on what people can afford. Other city council members have suggested offering subsidies.

Duggan is skeptical. “I don’t know how you begin to do an affordability plan. We’ve got 275,000 households in this city. People move every day. How would you ever figure out what the income is in a household from one day to the next?”

Actually, other cities already do this — Cleveland, for one. Portland, Oregon does too. So it may not be impossible. 

For his part, Duggan is reminding people there is financial assistance available if you’re low-income, and you fall behind on your water bill.

That pot of money is around $3 million.   

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