Detroit water shutoffs belie business ‘priority’
Detroit’s water shutoff campaign remains focused on residents, despite vows this spring the city’s “first priority” would be delinquent businesses, records obtained by The Detroit News show.
Homes account for a little more than half of the $119 million in delinquent bills — but nearly all shutoffs. Since April, crews have shut service to 13,750 residences and 369 businesses, according to city records acquired through the Freedom of Information Act.
That comes after the city’s new water and sewerage director, Gary Brown, told The News on April 1, “There’s no way we can focus on residential accounts when we have such large arrearages in commercial.”
Shutoffs ramped up in May and, since then, crews have cut water to an average of 150 homes per day — including the brick fixer-upper of LaToya Jones in the Morningside neighborhood on the east side.
She and her husband bought the home for $1,200 knowing they’d inherit back taxes. They didn’t expect a $5,000 water bill on the house that had been empty since 2013. They moved in May 11. Crews shut the line the next day, forcing the family to rely on bottled water and relocate their three children.
“It’s tearing me up every single day,” Jones, 39, told The News through her tears.
“I have never been separated from my children. We are good people. We were doing what we were supposed to do. We pay our bills. We don’t do drugs. This is what we get.”
Her fate isn’t unique. Despite increased outreach and assistance programs, records obtained by The News show the shutoffs continue to hit some of the city’s densest neighborhoods the hardest, such as the northeast and northwest sides. On 13 streets on the west side, for instance, more than 75 homes have been shut off this year, records show.
Halfway through the shutoff season, about 1 in 13 of the city’s 175,000 residential accounts has been disconnected, compared to 1 in 68 of the city’s 25,000 non-residential accounts, the city records show.
And it’s not always simply a matter of paying up.
Activists who work with the poor say old debts are still erroneously getting passed along to new occupants. New policies requiring bills be addressed to homeowners — rather than “occupant” — are leading to shutoffs of homes in tax foreclosure or those that lack clear title, said housing advocate Ted Phillips.
“People are wanting to pay for water, but they can’t get accounts and the water is shut off. That leaves them vacant and stripped,” said Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that works to keep families in homes.
“It’s madness. The water board is destroying properties,” he added.
Businesses ‘still a priority’
Water department officials say they are working on expanding solutions beyond shutoffs and aggressively pursuing both residential and commercial delinquencies.
Residential accounts are shut off to force occupants into payment or assistance plans, Brown said, while the city pursues non-residential deadbeats in court.
This year, the city has taken legal action against some 300 commercial accounts, which helped increase collections by $6.5 million in May, Brown said.
“There’s no doubt businesses are still a priority,” he said. “I’m not going to shut off nursing homes and apartments, but we’ve been very aggressive.”
As of last week, nearly 11,000 residential customers were 60 days overdue and eligible for shutoffs. Their average bill was $1,235 apiece.
Another 890 non-residential customers also are shutoff eligible. Their average bill was $8,800 apiece.
All told, the city has disconnected nearly 65,000 homes since 2014. That’s 7,000 more than the number of every home, condo and apartment in Warren, Michigan’s third-largest city.
About 44,000 of the disconnected Detroit homes are now on payment plans. Many, but not all, of the rest are presumed to be abandoned.
Water officials say they don’t keep statistics on how many occupied properties lack water.
Onerous old debts on house
A few months ago, Jones viewed home ownership as a path to a better life.
Today, she wonders what’s worse: The rats and squirrels she said lived in crawl spaces and walls of her old rental or defecating in plastic bags because her new home lacks running water.
“I almost want to walk away from this,” said Jones, 39, who has a heart condition. “It’s too hard. It feels like everything is closing in.”
She and her husband, Jay Moore, weren’t naive when they bought the house on Buckingham near Mack and Outer. They knew it had $12,000 in old taxes and debts and signed a repayment plan with the Wayne County treasurer.
The debt included $5,000 in water bills. So they were shocked when water was turned off this spring — and a city clerk informed the couple it wouldn’t be turned on until they paid the city the same debt.
“Why should we pay twice?” asked Jones. “We are already paying the (old) water bill to the county.”
City policies are supposed to forgive old bills if new occupants can prove they didn’t accrue the debt. But Moore said water clerks wouldn’t accept his paperwork proving ownership because it wasn’t notarized.
Brown said the water department demands notarized copies because of incidents of residents forging deeds.
The problems have delayed improvements to the home and separated the family. Jones said their children, Kaiera, 4, Kaira, 14, and Jaila, 18, now live with their grandmother — because of worries state Children’s Protective Services workers would move to terminate their parental rights.
“My youngest cries every time she comes to visit. ‘Why can’t I stay?’ ” Jones said.
The fears are unfounded, said Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services that oversees CSP.
The caseworkers help families without water, he said, noting that none of the 5,810 Michigan children separated from their parents or guardians last year was solely because of lack of running water.
Foreclosure shut off renter
Across town in Detroit, Tonesa Green has been without water for a month.
She said the water bill was included in her $700 monthly rent, but the landlord stopped paying the bill and taxes. The home on Robson in northwest Detroit was foreclosed this spring.
“The day they shut the water off was hell,” said Green, 39, a single parent of two and a nurse’s aide.
“I have a 10-year-old daughter with asthma. This has made it flare up in all sorts of bad ways.”
Green said she’s stuck in bureaucratic limbo.
She hopes to buy the house in this fall’s tax foreclosure auction. But the water remains off because of new policies that require tenants to get permission from landlords to put the bill in their names. Green said she can’t satisfy that requirement because, since the foreclosure, she doesn’t have a landlord and Wayne County owns the house.
Phillips said his nonprofit has 12 other clients in similar situations.
Proof of tenancy could pose problems to occupants of 5,000 homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank and 20,000 in tax foreclosure, Brown acknowledged.
He said the water department wants to work with people like Green and Jones. The water department will put bills in names of occupants if they get a letter from the land bank or county asserting their right to be in the homes, Brown said.
“I want to open up accounts,” Brown said. “It doesn’t do me any good not to. I want new customers. Do we have a fix for every issue that comes up? I’m willing to try to come up with solutions.”
Brown acknowledged that a culture in the city offices is part of the problem and clerks haven’t always been willing to work with customers.
“We have a tremendous amount of training and work to do,” he said.
Here’s a look at assistance programs for residents who have trouble paying water bills:
■WRAP Program: Offers up to $1,000 per household per year, home energy audits, housing repairs and other programs. Through July, 2,081 Detroit families have signed up. Help also is available to suburban residents. It is limited to low-income families. More information at waynemetro.org/wrap or (313) 386-9727.
■10/30/50 Plan: Delinquent Detroit customers can get water back on if they pay 10 percent of their bill. If they miss one payment, a 30 percent downpayment is required. If they miss another payment, they must pay 50 percent of the bill.
■Detroit Water Brigade: Nonprofit group delivers bottled water to those without service. For information or to donate, go to detroitwaterbrigade.org.
■City Water Fund: To donate to assistance programs, follow this link, detroitwaterproject.org.