Lawmakers push for federal aid to stop water shutoffs amid coronavirus

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan lawmakers are urging congressional leaders to provide relief for communities struggling with high water bills to prevent shut-offs at a time when hand washing is crucial to avoiding the novel coronavirus. 

Michigan's seven House Democrats signed a letter to bipartisan leaders of both chambers urging them to include the funding as part of a congressional legislative response to the COVID-19 epidemic, stressing it could help slow the virus' spread. 

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.

The lawmakers, led by U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, pointed to Detroit as an example, noting that 112,000 households in the city had their water shut off between 2014 and 2018. 

“Water shutoffs disproportionately impact cities with higher rates of poverty, unemployment and people of color," they wrote. 

"While in recent days the state of Michigan and Detroit have taken proactive measures to restore water service to communities during this crisis to mitigate health risks from the coronavirus, sadly, this issue spans well beyond Michigan. More communities across the U.S. will be facing the same challenges and must have the resources to act." 

Dingell said Friday she has raised the issue in Democratic leadership meetings, and that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, is aware of the issue and plans to prioritize it. 

"We have to find a way to help people get running water but also realize there’s a fiscal cost to urban areas who are operating on tight budgets," Dingell said. "They don’t have the revenue to support it, but yet water is a basic human right."

In light of the coronavirus, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last week revealed a plan to ensure the city's most vulnerable residents don't lose water service or to restore service already lost. 

Residents whose water was shut off or who have pending cutoffs are eligible to have their service restored at a discounted rate as long as the coronavirus remains a threat. 

Eligible residents will pay $25 a month for water service, and the first month's payment of $25 will be covered by the state after a resident signs up.

“We are in a national crisis and to keep all Americans safe they must have access to clean and affordable water. We must work together, both federally and locally, to make that a reality," Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said in a statement. 

“Water and public shutoffs during a crisis are putting the our residents at an even higher risk."

Michigan announced its first coronavirus cases Tuesday and confirmed 33 cases to date through Saturday night.

In a similar effort, a pair of Democratic state lawmakers are calling on the Republican-led Michigan Legislature to pass an immediate moratorium on utility shut-offs, evictions and foreclosures for 90 days as the nation deals with the epidemic. 

“As this crisis expands, we must take swift action to protect our senior citizen population and those economically impacted,” said Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit. 

“We must defend the public health of all people including our most vulnerable residents and low-income families." 

The Legislature returns to session on Tuesday.