Program aims to bring relief for those living without water in Detroit

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tanya Averette has spent the last few months relying on a neighbor's tap or buckets of rainwater to flush her toilet.

The 61-year-old has lived in a Detroit rental for more than a decade with the help of a federal housing voucher. But her water was cut off in early August by Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department over unpaid bills.

DeMeeko Williams, Founder/Chief Director of Hydrate Detroit speaks during a meeting of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, October 16.

Averette said she's been out of work for two years due to health issues and couldn't afford to keep up with her payment plan. Now, she's saddled with a $4,300 water bill for the house, which is plagued with plumbing and foundation issues. She also is facing eviction after her landlord let it fall into foreclosure.

"I can't concentrate on anything but trying to get this water issue straight so I can move before the bank comes and evicts me," said Averette, who is in talks with the water department about potential options. "I don't want to ask anybody (for help) because I know I'm capable of providing for myself. It's just that I was caught in this situation."

Averette is among the thousands of Detroit water customers cut off each year after falling behind on bills or payment plans. To combat the problem, Detroit's water and health departments have teamed with the University of Michigan on a new initiative aimed at reaching the city's most vulnerable customers. 

The pilot expected to launch early next year, will send social workers to 70 impoverished households at risk of losing water service in the city's 48234 ZIP code and offer them financial counseling, utility help and other services, said Detroit water department director Gary Brown.

It's unclear how much debt could potentially be forgiven. Under the program, the social workers will go door-to-door to identify a sample set of households that qualify. 

"If they are in abject poverty and have no income, water is just one of their problems," Brown said. "You have to wrap your arms around these families and understand what's going on to truly be able to lift them up out of the situation they are in."

This month marks five years since United Nations experts called on Detroit to end its controversial crackdown on widespread delinquencies amid the city's financial crisis.

In September, 9,872 city water customers were notified they were at risk for shutoff. Of those, 3,888 had service interrupted, according to a recent water interruption summary report.

But the water department said service interruptions for nonpayment have decreased 44% since 2014, when 50,000 were at risk and 28,500 accounts were turned off. In 2018, 59,000 customers were at risk and 16,000 ultimately cut off. 

Denise Fair, the city's chief public health officer, said the team will examine household needs, offering help to lower bills, access to job skills training programs and financial literacy. 

Fair said if the program is successful, officials hope they can extend it to as many people in need as possible. 

Among four-person households in the city, about 118,000 are at or below the federal poverty level, according to data collected by the water department, which has 209,000 residential accounts.

The water department, Fair added, will forgive up to $25,000 in water bill debt for those who successfully complete the pilot.

"I don’t think we can wait any longer," she said. "We have the funding, we have the support and the time is now.”

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department of Detroit holds a meeting, October 16, 2019.

The program will focus on customers who have fallen behind on bills, don't qualify for assistance programs and received a door hanger warning of shutoff, said Debra Pospiech, DWSD's general counsel. The water department has allocated $150,000 to cover staffing costs.

"We know there are people who are never going to be able to pay, and that's what all these other projects are for," she said. "Shutting them off does nothing."

The outreach effort comes as the department seeks to deploy several new strategies to ensure struggling water customers get help.

Brown said his office plans to close the water department's existing east, west side and downtown customer service centers and relocate instead to social service agencies or community centers in southwest, northwest and east Detroit. 

"We will be better serving our customers if we move to them," he said. 

Beulah Walker, chief coordinator of Hydrate Detroit, a nonprofit that provides emergency water deliveries and fights to restore service for hundreds of clients, including Averette, said she's skeptical of the efforts being proposed.

"In my opinion, they are not going to do anything because they don't want us here," said  Walker, who regularly speaks at water board meetings alongside Hydrate Detroit's chief director DeMeeko Williams. "City of Detroit residents, we live in fear. They have created the fear factor."

Walker said she's often battling with the water department to aid her group's most critical clients, including seniors, mothers with young children and those with disabilities. 

"These people don't deserve this," she said. "They use water as a form of weapon."

Saunteel Jenkins heads the nonprofit Heat and Warmth Fund, which also provides water assistance to Detroit families. She said she supports the concept of bringing in social workers to help residents sort out their challenges.

"You need people who will understand the population to come up with a program that actually makes sense for families," she said. "The hope is that once they have the data that the city is able to act on much of what they find."

The water department takes several steps to help customers with large past-due balances avoid service interruptions, said DWSD spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh.

Customers receive at least two past-due bills and door hangers encouraging them to call or come in for help. This year, the department also mailed postcards to residential customers two months behind and with arrears of at least $150.

DWSD said its collection rate was 77% in 2015 and there were 44,000 households in payment plans. Today, the collection rate is 93% and 15,736 customers are in payment plans.

Additionally, the number of active residential water accounts is up to 209,000 from approximately 175,000 in 2015.

Brown said the department doesn't intend to stop shutoffs for those who refuse to pay. 

"I don't know a utility in America that does not use the tool," Brown said. "It's a consequence."

Since 2016, more than 25,000 Detroit water customers have been evaluated for the Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP, a regional assistance fund created as a component of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged through Detroit's bankruptcy.

More than $20 million has been allocated for the program that's assisted about 17,000 households, primarily in Detroit, according to figures provided by Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, which administers WRAP. 

The agency said 37% of Detroit account holders have exited with no arrears. But only about 52% of clients have successfully completed the program. 

The program covers one-third of the cost of the average monthly bill and freezes overdue amounts for qualifying customers in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties who are at or below 150% of the federal poverty level, which is $37,650 for a family of four.

Separately, the city offers a "10/30/50" plan that allows customers to enter an arrangement to pay 10% of their past due balance. For each next missed payment, they become responsible for 30% and then 50% of what is owed.

Walker said she's grateful for the payment plans because formerly there was no outlet. But she thinks they aren't realistic for most struggling customers. 

"Why should I be punished and have to pay more if I skip one payment?" Walker said. "Why does it go up and up and up?"

Detroit resident Allene Baity-Wynn turned up at a water board meeting downtown on Wednesday, two days after her water was turned off.

The mother of three children, ages 3, 12 and 15, said she'd been on a payment plan but then her monthly bill shot up to more than $495 due to a malfunctioning meter. It was replaced, but she lost an appeal to have the overages erased.

Prior to that, the home health care worker said she was paying about $112 per month. 

Water department staff worked out a payment arrangement, and Baity-Wynn's service was turned back on later Wednesday. But she worries whether she'll be able to maintain it. 

"I'm not confident at all," said Baity-Wynn, a Hydrate Detroit client. "They said my bill should go back to normal, but I still feel like they are going to stick me with that bill that's in dispute."

In July, the ACLU filed a petition on behalf of a group of attorneys asking the state Department of Health and Human Services to declare a health emergency and ban Detroit's service interruptions. 

The state denied the request late last month, said Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan.

The petition argued that the shutoffs could lead to water-borne epidemics and harm the sick and young children. But the state found that while challenges faced by those shut off are significant, "they don't rise to the level of an imminent danger" under the public health code. 

The attorneys are now evaluating next steps, which could include litigation or an appeal to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The water department is working with Detroit's Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield on legislation to address affordability.

Brown said he's not supportive of an income-based plan, saying it would render more people just getting by to the bottom and unable to make payments.

But Fancher said it's what "a civilized society does for something as vital as water."

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