Detroit announces first income-based water affordability plan

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — A moratorium on water shutoffs is expected to lift in Michigan at the end of this year, and Detroit's mayor alongside advocates announced a plan Tuesday to prevent those most at risk from being without water once it does.

Low-income Detroiters will soon have their water bills adjusted based on their income rather than water usage, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will be using new standards to charge low-income residents 1.8% of their average monthly household income on water as part of a new plan they're dubbing the "Detroit Lifeline Plan."

"It's been a long road to get here. No one in this city should lose water service due to the inability to pay," Duggan said during a press conference at Detroit's Public Safety Headquarters.

The program will be assisted with regional, state and federal funds.

Earlier Tuesday, DWSD Director Gary Brown said the Board of Water Commission approved next year's water rates and 78% of residents will see "a modest decrease in their bill and 70% of customers will be eligible for some form of assistance."

It's a temporary pilot-program that has enough funding for nearly two years, Brown said.

If residents qualify for SNAP or food assistance, they will also qualify for the Lifeline Plan. It's an estimated 40%, or 100,000 households, in the city, and they will have a monthly water bill of $18, Duggan said.

Those who don't receive assistance but are considered low-income, will have a monthly bill cap of $43 and those moderate-income households will be capped at $56 a month.

Low-income Detroiters will soon have their water bills adjusted based on their income rather than water usage, Mayor Mike Duggan announced Tuesday.

"In 2014, you remember what happened under the emergency manager, water shutoffs across the city, and there was no assistance at all... with the help of a federal judge, I was able to step in, stop that, put in a moratorium, raised $2 million in private philanthropy and set up a program where people could get their water turned on by paying 10% of their bill and we used the private money to pay the balance," Duggan said. "That wasn't enough."

In 2016, a new water assistance plan was arranged where a piece of everyone's bill in Southeast Michigan went into an assistance fund that totaled $5 million a year for low-income assistance.

"It helped tens of thousands of people, but it didn't help everybody as we learned when the governor made a significant contribution so we could impose a moratorium on all water shutoffs during COVID, which will remain in effect through the end of 2022," Duggan said. 

Often, the residents who need the assistance don't have access to the information. Duggan said they learned that from door-knocking.

"We want to make sure in the final plan, that did not happen again," Duggan said.

Starting July 1, residents can start enrolling through Wayne Metro, a non-profit agency serving low-income residents in Wayne County. New rates will be in effect Aug. 1. 

Duggan said no residents will have their water shutoff with the Lifeline Plan. And before any water shutoffs occur on Jan. 1, there will be a knock at the door informing residents of their options.

DWSD and Wayne Metro are partnering with other organizations on an outreach plan to enroll eligible households in the city.

They will continue to utilize Detroit-based and minority-owned Human Fliers to canvass neighborhoods by knocking on doors of more than 50,000 homes, which started in May.

If water uses go above 4,500 gallons per month, than water bill will reflect a charge in addition to the capped Lifeline Rate, which often happens due to faulty plumbing or leaky toilets.

If Gov. Gretchen Whitmer approves additional funding, Brown said, Wayne Metro will have access to $10 million per year for the next five years to help low-income residential customers repair leaks in their homes to keep the water usage down.

Residents can monitor their usage online at csportal.detroitmi.gov or if they provide their phone number to Wayne Metro, they will automatically get a call when usage nears 3,000 gallons, Brown said.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former Detroit Health director and national health advocate, said the work for the program started seven years ago when he wasn't on the same side of the table as the city.

El-Sayed said the plan isn't perfect and that more work can and should be done to make those percentages more generous and permeant.

"But this was an opportunity for us to come together... what we could do once and for all to address this challenge, fundamentally re-thinking the approach of how we ask Detroiters to pay for water," El-Sayed. "We've finally reached the north star. No Detroiter will have their water shut off because they cannot afford to pay their bill."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_