Detroit reaching out to thousands without water amid coronavirus worries

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's water department has identified 3,600 residential accounts turned off for more than a year and is in the midst of an outreach effort to ensure they are restored under a relief plan to battle against spread of the coronavirus.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown discussed the status of his office's restorative measures during a Tuesday briefing before Detroit's City Council, saying crews have the capacity to turn on about 100 water accounts per day. 

Mayor Mike Duggan teamed with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week to unveil the interim policy that went into effect Wednesday, making residents with water turned off or with cutoffs pending eligible have service restored at a discounted rate.

Brown said of the 3,600 accounts identified, officials found 800 already had new accounts, meaning a new tenant or another family member within the home had turned the water on. 

Of the water department's canvass of the addresses, about 400 were confirmed to be occupied and informed of how to call to have water restored. Officials haven't been able to make contact with another 2,200 of the homes they visited, he said. 

"We left a doorknocker on the door with the information ... to be able to call and get the water on," Brown said. 

Under the new aid program, residents will pay $25 a month for water service for as long as the virus remains a threat. The first month's payment of $25 will be covered by the state after a resident signs up.

To sign up, residents can call the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at (313) 386-9727 to set up an appointment.

Brown said Tuesday that there have been more than 5,000 calls to Wayne Metro for assistance and about 900 are eligible for immediate water restoration. About 200 had shutoff notices prior to calling. Those impending shutoffs were "voided," and those customers were automatically entered into the state's $25 plan, he said. 

Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield has called the mayor's new water plan "short-sighted."

The council last week unanimously supported a resolution spearheaded by Sheffield that urges Whitmer, city and county leaders to direct their representatives to ban residential shutoffs against low-income residents.

On Tuesday, she pressed Brown about additional efforts to reach the households that haven't responded so far. 

"My concern is that these are still people who are without water and in the midst of a crisis I would love to see without a $25 restoration fee that their water be restored," Sheffield said. "These are people who are still living in these homes who again are probably homeless or they just do not want to deal with city government."

Brown said outreach teams plan to revisit the properties again later this week but the customers having to be willing participants to get access to the resources.

“Without the participation, it’s challenging and difficult,” he said. "We have to get into the homes."

Brown said work orders can be generated within 24 hours and the crews can be sent out the next day. The time to get water turned on depends on the amount of work needed at each property.

Officials have said 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. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, Michigan had reported 65 confirmed cases of the virus.

Late Monday, Duggan said the state should have more tools to fight the virus and is weeks away from the level of testing it needs to bring the pandemic under control.

“We’re largely flying blind because we don’t know which of our citizens have the disease,” he said during a Monday evening news conference at City Hall. “The country was not prepared."

In February, 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.  

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