This post was written and reported by freelance contributor Dawn R. Wolfe through our new Daily Kos freelance program.
Imagine being unable to flush your toilet. Or bathe your children. Or even grab a cool drink of water from your tap when the temps are in the 90s. Now imagine the reason you're unable to do these things is that you can't afford your water bill—and your city government is misreading, perhaps intentionally, a 40-year-old state constitutional amendment in order to duck its responsibility to your family.
That's the situation in Detroit, where 40 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty, roughly 16 percent live with a disability, and the city shut water off to an estimated total of 93,743 households—and possibly as many as a quarter-million individuals—between 2014 and 2017. In 2014, visiting United Nations observers lambasted the “unprecedented scale” of the shut-offs, saying “it is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.”
The response of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has been to institute temporary solutions that are out of many people’s reach, and to give itself a pat on the back for the lengths it goes to in communicating with people who are about to lose their water service.
According to a Food & Water Watch analysis of DWSD data provided to Daily Kos, water shut-offs have affected as many as 14 percent of Detroit's water customers a year, every year, since 2014. Here's a breakdown of the numbers:
- In 2014, 29,633 households, representing an estimated 244,669 individuals or roughly 14 percent of customers, had water service taken away from them.
- In 2015, shut-offs happened to 14,998 households with an estimated 39,145 individuals, or roughly 7 percent of water customers.
- In 2016, the figures were 29,872 households, 77,966 individuals, and 14 percent of customers.
- In 2017, 19,240 households, 50,206 individuals, and 9 percent of customers were denied access to running water and functioning toilets in their homes.
While the city wasn't able to provide complete numbers for 2018, an April report in the Detroit News said that, as of that time, 17,000 households were at risk.
It's important to note that, because of the way the city provides data, it's difficult to determine how many of these households and individuals have experienced multiple shut-offs over time.
“There are some households that struggle with payments and may have been interrupted several times over the time period,” said Bryan Peckinpaugh, the DSWD's public affairs manager. He added that, with a rental population of 50 percent, it's possible that renters have struggled with water bills in more than one location, resulting in multiple shut-offs for the same household of individuals.
It's also difficult to tell how long the average shut-off victim lives without water. In an August 2017 report to the Detroit City Council, Food & Water Watch reported being told by DWSD officials that the agency wasn't tracking the length of shut-offs. However, when the agency did keep track of that information—or rather, when it was willing to provide such information to Food & Water Watch—the nonprofit was able to estimate that in 2014 it took an average of 25 days for people to scrape together the funds to get their water turned back on. In 2015, the wait time was 19 days. These estimates were for households that had their water restored in the same calendar year in which it taken away.
Asked repeatedly what his department is doing to make sure that it isn’t cutting off water to people who are simply unable to pay, Peckinpaugh responded that under state law, municipalities can refuse service “after the household is at least $1 past due and one day late.” In other words, according to Peckinpaugh, the DWSD isn’t being as aggressive about denying water to poor people as it could be.
“DWSD takes extraordinary steps to provide three notices to households prior to a scheduled interruption,” he told Daily Kos in a July email, including warning people 60 days in advance, using door hangers for the third notice, and providing a seven-day warning with instructions to avoid a shut-off. In addition, Peckinpaugh said, his department returns three days later to households “who don’t seek help and have their service interrupted” with a door hanger that includes information about how to get assistance.
The city, and agencies including the Great Lakes Water Authority, have created plans to help struggling residents keep their water on, but, according to Michigan Welfare Rights Organization organizer Sylvia Orduño, the plans are only a temporary solution to an ongoing problem. It’s a solution that, all too often, people living in poverty can't afford.
As an example, Orduño cited the city's 10/30/50 plan, so named for the percentage that users have to pay up front on their past-due amount in order to qualify. On the plan's first tier, the applicant must pay 10 percent of any past-due balance, but “if you default then you go to a 30 percent down payment,” said Orduño. “If you default again, then you have to come up with 50 percent of your bill before they'll let you get on the program,” she added. “Which is ridiculous because if people had that money, then this wouldn't be an issue.”
In May 2015, Food & Water Watch reported that an ACLU investigative reporter had determined that, of 24,745 residential customers enrolled in the 10/30/50 plan, only about 300 were able to keep up with their payments.
The payment plans also come with an additional issue: To qualify, individuals have to sign away their right to dispute past bills.
Given the sheer scope of the ongoing poverty in the city of Detroit, the answer to these problems seems obvious—base water rates on household income. That's the direction the city of Philadelphia has taken. Philly's Tiered Assistance Program pegs residents' monthly water bills to a percentage of their household income and size.
This isn't a new idea. In 2006, the Detroit City Council passed a resolution approving an income-based water-affordability plan. It’s a plan the DWSD rejected.
Asked why the department isn't at least looking into tiered water rates tied to income, the DWSD's Peckinpaugh claimed that municipalities “are required to charge for the cost of service to each property.” When asked to cite the statute forcing the department's hand, though, he was unable to do so.
As it turns out, the DWSD’s failure to institute income-based rates comes courtesy of an inaccurate reading of Michigan’s 1978 Headlee amendment and an old Lansing court case. Headlee requires local governments to get new taxes approved at the ballot box. In the 1998 Bolt v. City of Lansing decision, a court stopped the city of Lansing from initiating a stormwater service charge, finding it was actually a tax in disguise. However, legal experts ranging from the Detroit City Council’s Legislative Policy Division to the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the ACLU’s Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the civil rights organization’s Racial Justice Project, strongly disagree with that assessment.
"The difference between a charge that's payment for services and a tax is whether it's voluntary or not," Fancher said in an interview with Daily Kos. "Whether you have water service or not is completely up to you. So, that would make any charge associated with an affordability plan something that was purely voluntary. You don't have to do it."
Basing water rates on household income may, however, get in the way of possible future plans to make access to water in Detroit a purely for-profit proposition. During the 2014 creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority as part of the Detroit bankruptcy deal, control of the water services in Detroit and all of Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties was handed over to unelected, appointed officials.
According to a 2015 paper by Food & Water Watch, the deal “creates a path to privatization.” The DWSD even hired Veolia North America, the largest for-profit operator of municipal water systems in the U.S.—a company that was later implicated in the Flint Water Crisis—to review and make recommendations for operating the area's water systems.
Dawn Wolfe is a freelance writer and journalist based in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you ‘d like to help support more stories like this through our freelance program, contribute here.