Detroit mayor rolls out plan to stop water shutoffs amid coronavirus fears

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Detroit — Amid a push to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced a relief plan Monday aimed at ensuring the city's most vulnerable residents don't lose water service — or if they have, to get it back.

Starting Wednesday, residents whose water is shut off or who have pending cutoffs will be eligible to have their service restored at a discounted rate, Duggan and other city officials said at a press conference. 

One of the main preventive measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, is frequent handwashing.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks during a press conference at the Water and Sewerage department, March 8, 2020. Duggan announced an affordable program to keep residents’ water turned on during the corona virus outbreak.

"Given the importance of handwashing ... the governor and I sat down and said we're going to have a solution that no resident of the city of Detroit has their water shut off for lack of funds," Duggan said. 

Eligible residents will pay $25 a month for water service for as long as the coronavirus remains a threat. The first month's payment of $25 will be covered by the state after a resident signs up.

Read more: Detroit-area churches change to avoid coronavirus spread

To sign up for the restoration plan, residents can call the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at (313) 386-9727 to set up an appointment, starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

According to water department Director Gary Brown, about 3,000 residents are dealing with water shutoffs since last year. The city will send personnel to each home without water to announce the restoration plan, he said. 

"Turning the water back on while we're in this crisis is the immediate emergency, but that's not all we want to do," Brown said. "We want to get into those homes and be able to fix the plumbing issues so that we can get them to an average bill. Then, we give them some financial assistance." 

Once city and state health departments conclude the coronavirus outbreak is no longer a threat, Detroiters on the restoration plan will be transitioned into another affordable payment plan, the Water Residential Assistance Program. Any past due balance will be deferred until after the outbreak is contained. 

The city announced the restoration plan after 600 cases of coronavirus and 26 deaths were reported in the U.S. as of Monday. There are no known cases of the virus in Michigan and the current threat level is low to moderate, according to city officials. 

"It's not a matter of if COVID-19 comes to Detroit, but it's a matter of when and we need to be prepared," said Denise Fair, director of Detroit's Health Department. 

In February, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Great Lakes Authority Board approved $1.1 million in additional funding for Detroit, and $500,000 for Flint, to prevent water service interruptions. Detroit has $2.4 million for water payment assistance. 

Under WRAP, 16,500 Detroit households have received help to continue their water services, Brown said.

After the governor transferred additional funding into the program, the eligibility requirements expanded to include households that make 200% of the poverty level. Under federal guidelines, the poverty level for a family of four is a household income of $25,750.  

Detroit gained national attention during its bankruptcy in 2014 for shutting off water to 33,000 homes for unpaid bills. 

In February, Whitmer declined to implement a ban on water shutoffs after Detroit officials expressed their concerns. At the time, her chief legal counsel, Mark Totten, said there was "insufficient evidence" to support a ban. 

After the Detroit City Council urged the governor to take action, Totten said in a letter that existing data "does not permit a finding that the city of Detroit is experiencing a public health emergency caused by water shutoffs."

Duggan said Monday he still doesn't support a temporary halt to service shutoffs.

"We know that a moratorium on shutoffs is a guaranteed failed policy," he said. "Any place moratoriums on shutoffs have been implemented, huge numbers of people who quit paying, stop paying because there's no consequences."

A coalition of civil rights attorneys and organizations that also pushed for Whitmer's help still wants the state to pass a permanent plan for water affordability beyond the coronavirus threat. 

"Water is a human right regardless of whether there is a threat of any particular disease," said Mark Fancher, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. 

"Many families coping with shutoffs were never able to afford market rates. After receiving one-time financial assistance from the WRAP program during the threat of COVID-19, it is likely they will find themselves in debt and facing loss of water service yet again."

The new water restoration plan does not guarantee people won't have their service cut off during the coronavirus outbreak. Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the city water department, said residents who do not pay the $25 a month will be at risk for shutoffs.

Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield said Monday she was not satisfied with the mayor's plan.

"Tying these actions to the COVID-19 outbreak is short-sighted and is no substitute for sound public policy," Sheffield said in a statement. "While today is a good day for those of us fighting to make water a human right, we still have a lot of work to do to make it a reality."

Last year, the city shut off water to 23,000 residential accounts. By the final day of the year, 12,500 had not been restored. Of those, 3,000 were turned back on in the first two weeks of 2020, and 5,400 others showed no signs of usage in 2019, according to water department figures provided in February. 

A panel of health experts in 2017 called for a declaration of a public health emergency in Detroit and accused city health officials of ignoring a study that linked water shutoffs and water-related illnesses.

Earlier this year, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the city's water shutoffs a "moral outrage."

"Detroiters are having their water shut off because they can’t afford outrageous water bills," Sanders said. "That is a moral outrage. Clean water must be a human right."