Detroiters struggling to keep up with water bills

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News

Do the math, and it becomes clear: Eddie Cunningham Sr. is one of five people on his block in northwest Detroit who is current on his water bill.

Eddie Cunningham Sr. is one of five people on his block in who is current on his water bill. “It’s a reflection of the economy: People need jobs,” he said.

There are 24 brick bungalows and colonials on the block of Lindsay near Seven Mile and Southfield. Six are empty. Two are occupied by squatters. Eleven are on payment plans for delinquent bills. The number expands to 85 on a 2-mile stretch of Lindsay.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Cunningham, a retired welder who is vice president of his block club and captain of the neighborhood watch. “It’s a reflection of the economy: People need jobs.”

Interactive: Detroit's water bills - The Detroit News

The College Park block is hardly unique. Nearly a quarter of Detroit homes are behind on water bills, 18 months after the city began widespread water shutoffs for delinquent accounts.

The Detroit News obtained the block-level data through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents, for the first time, map the impact of the shutoff campaign — and underscore that access to dependable running water remains an issue in Michigan beyond Flint, which President Barack Obama has declared a state of emergency because of lead-tainted water.

In Detroit, 22 percent of all occupied homes, 44,000, are on repayment plans that can increase monthly bills by as much as double and put customers one missed payment away from another shutoff, according to records from early January.

All corners of Detroit are affected, including some of the most stable and densely populated. In neighborhoods along the city’s suburban borders on the northwest and northeast, 1 in 4 occupied homes are on payment plans. Nearly 100 blocks have 10 or more houses on the plans, the records show.

In the past fiscal year, water was disconnected to at least 26,500 of 200,000 residential accounts and restored to about 20,800. The shutoffs, which were continuing at a rate of about 3,500 per month this fall, have been suspended for winter because of the cold.

“We are delivering so much water, we are worn out. We’re tired of delivering water all over the place,” said Maureen D. Taylor, state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “This is beyond scandalous.”

Gary Brown, the new director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said the data prove the campaign is working. He acknowledged the city’s billing system was riddled with errors for years. The goal of shutoffs was to put people on payment plans, improve record-keeping and “change the culture” of delinquency, he said.

“The system is getting healthier every day,” Brown said. “We are changing our priorities and (moving away) from residential shutoffs. We are going to help people truly in need of help. But you have a contract. You have to live up to it.”

More than 9,000 customers on payment plans are eligible for shutoffs because they are 60 days past due, city records show.

Leslie Denard’s water bill delinquency once exceeded $800. “It was just the bill that always went to the bottom of the pile when life happened,” she said.

Home owner cuts bill in half

Leslie Denard wasn’t shocked to learn from The News that 10 homes on her east side block are behind on water bills.

She’s on a payment plan herself.

For 22 years, she’s owned her brick bungalow on the 14100 block of Collingham near Eight Mile and Schoenherr. During that time, the block has gone from mostly owner-occupied to a mix of rentals. Now, the surrounding ZIP code, 48205, has 2,993 homes on repayment plans for water bills, records show.

“It was just the bill that always went to the bottom of the pile when life happened,” said Denard, 53, a factory worker.

Her delinquency crept up past $800 before the crackdown. She’s cut it by more than half through payments of $15 per month atop her monthly bill of $50.

“It’s fair,” Denard said. “This was about me not paying attention and not being organized.”

She’s an example of how Brown and city officials said the program should work. More than 80 percent of those on payment plans — 35,500 customers — owe $1,000 or less, the records show. The average debt is $627.

“A person who is $1,000 in arrears, we have assistance for them. They can get caught up,” Brown said. “Once they get past that point and there’s a large arrearage, it can get almost impossible.”

The United Way of Southeastern Michigan manages an assistance plan for city residents that has about $1 million available. The Great Lakes Water Authority, which in January took over management of water and sewer in the three-county system, has launched a separate fund for city and suburban residents. Comprised of 0.5 percent of its annual revenues, the fund is expected to raise $4.6 million this year.

Overall, Detroiters on payment plans owe $26 million, according to city records. Add in businesses and the total increases to $40 million.

Critics of the system say there are too many cases like Willa Austin. In less than a year, the water bill on her small rental on the west side climbed to $1,800. It has no dishwasher. The shower doesn’t work. The washing machine is spotty.

“How could I owe that much?” she asked.

After water was shut off on Nov. 12, Austin paid $248 to restore service. Between back bills and current fees, she now pays $300 per month for water and sewer.

“They said there is a leak,” she said.

Austin spoke to The News from 36th District Court, where she was facing eviction proceedings in January. She’s since cut a deal with the landlord to remain in the house and pay down the water bill.

Renters making payments

City records don’t indicate how many of the payment plans are on rentals, but Brown said it’s a large proportion.

Detroit once had one of the largest home ownership rates in the nation. Now, it’s 52 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

In the past 10 years, 1 in 3 city homes have been foreclosed because of mortgages or tax foreclosures. That led to a spike in “phantom bills” on vacant homes and rentals, whose occupants left after the water debt got too high, Brown said.

Citywide, 175 residential accounts are on payment plans for bills of $4,500 or more, including 36 for more than $7,000. The News’ records indicate only block numbers, rather than specific addresses, and Brown said he’s not sure if those bills are genuine.

“We’re cleaning up a lot of bad bills and false debt,” Brown said. “Every day, we have a team of people cleaning up accounts.”

Homrich Wrecking received a $5.6 million contract for the shutoffs and re-connections in April 2013. Last May, the contract was extended by another $1 million because of the volume of shutoffs, city records show.

Critics such as Michele Oberholtzer said the records show repayments are based on “dubious bills.”

In a city where 40 percent of residents live in poverty, many will be unable to keep up with payments, she predicted, contributing to a cycle of abandonment and blight.

“This is basically a form of raising taxes on poor people, which is a huge crippling force,” said Oberholtzer, founder of the Tricycle Collective, a nonprofit that works to keep families in tax-foreclosed homes.

“If you make it unlivable to stay in houses, you displace people and it becomes their fault.”

Twitter: @joeltkurth