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Detroit extends water shutoff moratorium through 2022

Detroit — The city is continuing a moratorium on residential water shutoffs through 2022 and working on a plan that would end them permanently, Mayor Mike Duggan and water department officials said Tuesday. 

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the city’s former public health director, joined with Duggan to announce the voluntary two-year extension of the shutoff ban, which was set to expire Dec. 31.

“My goal now is to stop water shutoffs to low-income Detroiters once and for all,” Duggan said. “We have secured the funding necessary to continue this effort through 2022 and we are building a coalition to make this permanent.”

The announcement came a day before a scheduled press conference by the mayor's campaign, where Duggan is expected to indicate whether he plans to run for reelection

Early in the pandemic, Duggan teamed with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on a relief plan aimed at ensuring the city’s most vulnerable residents didn’t lose water service, as well as an effort to get service restored at a discounted rate for those who had been cut off.

The program, announced in March, allows eligible residents to pay $25 a month for water service as long as the coronavirus remains a threat. The first month’s payment of $25 is covered by the state after a resident signs up.

Whitmer in March required public water suppliers to restore service to occupied homes that had been disconnected. The state Department of Health and Human Services subsequently extended the order through the end of 2020.

Mayor Mike Duggan announces that Detroit will continue a moratorium on residential water shutoffs through 2022 and working on a plan that would end them permanently.

Detroit’s water department canvassed city neighborhoods this spring after identifying several thousand residential accounts that had been turned off for more than a year as part of an outreach initiative to restore service to them.

Brown said the COVID-19 Water Restart Plan, launched on March 9, has restored water service at nearly 1,300 occupied homes, many of which needed plumbing repairs. The city has set aside sufficient state, federal, private and local funds to continue the moratorium on water service interruptions even after the state health department's orders end on Dec. 31.

"What we found was that the average water bill was oftentimes running double from leaking toilets, running pipes … so the governor came up with $6 million to allow us to get to the root cause," Duggan said. "Now, Gary Brown’s team has either repaired or is in the process of repairing the pipes in 700 houses in the city."

By the end of December, the water and sewerage department expects to spend $22 million, $15 million of which has been for bill credits to nearly 50,000 Detroit households. DWSD has 227,000 active residential accounts.

Detroit's water and sewerage budget is $439.3 million, with at least 80% dedicated to water, sewer and storm water services, and debt service.

Activists urge more action

Whitmer said she's grateful for Duggan's leadership and the work of water advocates.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department detail efforts and plans to prevent water shutoffs in the city.

“I urge our leaders in Lansing to follow suit and pass Senate Bill 241, the Water Shutoff Protection Act, to protect Michiganders across the state from water shutoffs during the pandemic," she said in a Tuesday statement. "My administration will continue working to ensure every Michigander can give their child a glass of water at the dinner table, and I look forward to partnering with everyone, from the Biden Administration to state and local government, to get it done.”

The bill, sponsored by Democrats, faces an uphill climb. It hasn't been scheduled for a hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate after being introduced in March 2019.

Other officials said the Duggan plan is a positive step but that more needs to be done to ensure all Detroiters have access to affordable water.

"About time," U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, tweeted.

"I hope @MayorMikeDuggan will now support the measure @RepDebDingell  & I pushed for in the Heroes Act that creates a $1.5 billion Water is a Human Right Fund," she wrote about a $2.2 billion House-passed COVID-19 relief plan that the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to vote on. "The residents of Detroit deserve it."

Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield said she has spent the last few years focused on efforts to end water shutoffs in the city and ensuring access to clean and safe drinking water is treated as a human right.

"While I welcome the sudden awakening of the mayor and DWSD on this issue, today’s announcement is only a temporary solution and there is much work still to be done," Sheffield told The Detroit News. "I encourage those in power to support a real water affordability plan that will put a true end to the inhumane practice of turning off water for some of our most vulnerable residents."

The city imposed an aggressive water shutoff policy while under emergency management during its 2013-14 bankruptcy to crack down on nonpayment. 

Under an agreement tied to its Chapter 9 filing, Detroit entered a 40-year lease of its water assets with a regional authority.

The deal called for the creation of the Water Residential Assistance Program, a fund to aid low-income residents in Detroit and the suburbs. The city offers a separate program called the 10-30-50 plan, which has customers put a down payment of either 10%, 30% or 50% toward their past-due balance, based on the number of payment plans they've entered into over the 18-month period prior to enrollment.

Still, a water rights group and a handful of residents filed a federal lawsuit against the city in July alleging constitutional violations and racial discrimination tied to water shutoffs and affordability practices. In January, the court will consider the city's motion to dismiss the case.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Mark Fancher said he's taking a wait-and-see approach toward the city's initiative.

"We have to reserve judgment about anything they may do," Fancher said. "We have to wait and see what all of that translates to. So many times they've attempted to address water shutoffs, and we've never got to the issue of chronic poverty. We don't know how they define a permanent solution, and until we know what that is, we do remain on course to advocate for a payment plan indexed to income."

Brown said the city has secured enough funding to maintain service for the next two years while officials work on a permanent water affordability solution at the state and federal levels.

"The infrastructure is in place through DWSD and our community partners to continue to provide compassionate and effective customer affordability programs to financially insecure Detroit households, now and through the implementation of long-term solutions," Brown said.

For those behind when the moratorium runs out, Duggan said, "we'll deal with that in 2023," adding that officials are committed to a solution.

"It has been remarkable to see that we went from about 75% of Detroiters paying their bills to 92% today," Duggan said. "If you get the payment to an amount people can afford, people will pay that bill."

The remaining 8% represent about 18,000 households, Brown added. "More than half are not below poverty, they simply need time" to catch up on their bills after falling behind, he said.

"Regardless of how low water rates are, there will always be a percentage of households that simply cannot afford to pay their water bills," Brown said. "Federal programs exist to support financially insecure households obtaining food, heating and energy, but no similar assistance is provided for the most basic life necessity, clean and safe water."

Seeking permanence

The city's COVID-19 Water Restart Plan and the federal CARES Act provided temporary relief during the pandemic. The next step is to work on a permanent solution for water affordability. 

“The federal government currently actively prevents gas and electric shutoffs of low-income Americans through the Low Income Heating Assistance Program,” Duggan said. “But there is no comparable program for water bills. We’re going to be part of a national coalition to support the efforts of Sen. Gary Peters to extend utility shutoff support for water.”

Detroit has joined a coalition of cities — including Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Louisville, Sacramento, Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Virginia — to create a policy platform on national water affordability initiatives focusing primarily on assistance to low-income households, including plumbing repairs.

El-Sayed, a water access advocate, applauded the Duggan administration's work, touting it as a "victory for the city."

“During my time as health director, I had the opportunity to visit the home of a young woman who had tragically lost her infant," El-Sayed said. "I will never forget the moment I realized that her water had been shut off. I was stunned. Since then, ending water shutoffs in the city of Detroit has been a preoccupying concern.

"To achieve it, we’re going to need to align advocates with state and federal lawmakers and city leadership to find the funds."

Members from various groups walk from Hart Plaza toward a press conference at the Spirit of Detroit as they carry a sign asking government officials to stop Detroit water shutoffs.

Residential households will continue to generate their full water and sewer charges based on monthly use, and the drainage charge, using current rates. The Detroit water department plans to seek money from local, state, federal governments as well as philanthropic groups to fill the gap to ensure residents who cannot pay today can maintain water service.

Roslyn Walker has spent the past decade canvassing Detroit neighborhoods as a field coordinator for the People’s Water Board, offering help to residents in need. Water prices have continued to climb over the years, she said, and residents consistently struggle to afford it.

“There’s a lot of people still without water, but they’re not willing to say they’re without water because that brings protective services,” she said Tuesday. “A lot of people can’t afford to pay.”

Walker contends the assistance programs offered are designed for the city’s best interests, not those of residents.

“People cannot make it,” she said. “You have to come up with an affordable plan for everybody. What the city is trying to do is come up with an affordable plan for them.”

Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said she’s glad to hear that meaningful plans for relief are in the works. But said she's "frustrated" and "furious" that it's taken so long.

"Why did we put Detroiters through misery for so many years when we could have solved this sooner?" she said.

Orduño insisted it shouldn't have taken the COVID-19 crisis to spur action.

"Still, they fell short of saying water and sanitation are human rights," she added. "They are stopping short of declaring people will have water and sanitation services, regardless. It will always be contingent on something." 

Current programs

Customer affordability programs have existed since 2016, with some additional resources over the past few years from community partners. 

• WRAP, the Water Residential Assistance Program, has helped more than 18,000 households get to an average bill through paying down arrears, monthly bill credit and minor home plumbing repairs. As of July 1, households earning at or below 200% of the federal poverty level are eligible to apply — that’s $52,000 annual income for a family of four. 

• The Great Lakes Water Authority board allocation for WRAP is expected to be $9.2 million regionally through 2022, with at least an additional $3.8 million earmarked for Detroit.

• The 10/30/50 Plan allows residents to enroll in the payment plan online and by phone. The plan has unlimited enrollment availability for households who need help paying down a balance but do not meet the WRAP income eligibility.

• The City of Detroit’s Community Health Corps will help residents living in extreme poverty who need wrap-around services by continuing to go door-to-door.

Residential households who can pay should continue to pay their monthly bill to support maintaining and improving the water and sewer systems for all of Detroit, officials said.

Brown thanked the 92% of Detroit households that regularly pay their bills, contributing to the modernization of a 100-year-old system.

“We also want to thank the hard-working DWSD employees and their families who have been impacted by this pandemic," he said. "Many of our field service technicians have been on the front lines since the pandemic began, helping our customers resolve issues in the neighborhoods."

Detroiters with low income can join the program and avoid any interruption of service by contacting Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at (313) 386-9727 or visit www.waynemetro.org.

The mayor reiterated that residents have until Monday to apply for rental and tax assistance through the Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program, which provides aid to residents making less than $22,000 or families making less than $32,000 a year. 

cferretti@detroitnews.com, @cferretti_dn

srahal@detroitnews.com, @sarahrahal_