Group rallies against water shutoffs in Detroit

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — Protesters called Monday for the city to stop shutting off water service for unpaid bills, saying officials are hurting poor families and need to adopt a water affordability plan.

Detroit resident Barbara Hill shows her water bill which is in excess of $3000. With assistance from Hydrate Detroit, Hill was able to negotiate a smaller minimum payment due.

Hydrate Detroit— a nonprofit that provides water deliveries and helps with water restoration for families in the city— led a gathering of about a dozen people at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s west-side customer service center on Grand River.

The demonstrators called for Detroit to suspend water shutoffs and allow amnesty for residents who can’t afford to pay their past-due bills.

More than 17,000 residential customers in Detroit are at risk of having their water shut off, city officials say. The water department plans to begin visiting homes on May 1 with door hangers warning of shutoffs if those customers don’t take steps to resolve their outstanding bills.

Gary Brown, director of the water department, has said customers will have seven days to respond to the notice before crews can disconnect their water service.

Meeko Williams, chief director of Hydrate Detroit, said the threatened shutoffs are damaging the city’s comeback story.

“We all know that water shutoffs are harmful and dangerous to residents,” Williams said. “They cause no help at all. And we are calling on the city ... to come together with us at the table and create a solution to keep people from having their water shut off.”

Williams maintains that the city needs to offer an affordability plan that allows for income-based water rates. Residents, he said, have been “taxed enough” with utility bills, payment plans for property taxes and high auto insurance rates.

“This is too much money we don’t have,” Williams said. “Relieve the citizens of their debt.”

Brown said in a statement Monday that the water department has “a path for every customer to avoid a service interruption.”

He cited the Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, which is designed to help qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level — $36,450 for a family of four — by covering one-third of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts. The city also offers payment plans for residents.

“DWSD is here to help, our doors are open to groups who want to help residents keep their water flowing,” Brown said in the statement.

Detroit resident Barbara Hill said the water department sent a bill for $3,065, threatening to shut off her service if she didn’t pay it.

Hill said she was previously on a payment plan with the WRAP but was kicked off when she missed a payment.

Hydrate Detroit, she said, helped her negotiate with water department officials so that she only owes 10 percent of the bill this month, but Hill doesn’t know how she will pay the remaining balance.

“How can you pay a $3,000 water bill if you only receive a small amount of income?” said Hill, who is unemployed and lives in the Brightmoor area. “I think it’s a travesty. I’m not some person who has been on welfare asking for a handout.”

Atpeace Makita, a spokeswoman for Hydrate Detroit, said residents have complained of long waiting lists for WRAP.

“Although we appreciate the effort that is being made (by the city), at the end of the day it isn’t meeting the need,” Makita said. “We have to get affordable programs ... that are according to someone’s income.”

Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the city’s water department, said the current legal framework in Michigan does not allow Detroit to establish income-based water rates.

Also appearing at Monday’s rally were a few candidates for political office, including Abdul El-Sayed— a former health director for the city of Detroit who is running for governor.

El-Sayed said he wanted to show solidarity with the residents who were at risk of losing their water service. Water, he said, is a basic necessity for survival and the city should be working with residents to ensure they don’t lose that access.

“We cannot continue to treat it as a commodity,” El-Sayed said.

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Twitter: @NicquelTerry