Make Detroit water affordable

Cindy Estrada

This month, Philadelphia started the country’s first water affordability program to help low-income residents pay their water bill on time, generate reliable revenue, and keep the water flowing to impacted households.

If Philadelphia can find a water affordability solution, so can Detroit.

For over a decade, Detroiters and water affordability advocates have been pushing city leaders to reconcile the city’s high poverty and high water and sewerage rates by implementing a fair and sustainable plan that gives all Detroiters access to clean and safe drinking water as guaranteed by Detroit’s City Charter.

In October 2015, the Detroit City Council appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel to research water affordability options for the council’s consideration. The committee released its report in February 2016.

Calling Detroit “ground zero” for water affordability solutions, the panel listed short-term and long-term ways the city could make water more affordable and bills more collectible. The panel named the city’s “historic decline” as being the prime reason a growing number of low-income Detroiters could not pay their water bill.

About 70 percent of Detroit households live on an income far less than the no-frills “survival budget” calculated by the United Way for a two-adult, two-child Michigan household. In Wayne County, that survival budget — consisting of housing, food, transportation, health care, miscellaneous, and taxes — requires a $28.04 hourly wage or $56,064 a year. Meanwhile, the outdated federal poverty rate for a family of four is $24,250.

Obviously, the wide gap between what a Detroiter needs to earn to survive and what is possible to earn in the current job market means too many households still choose between keeping the water flowing or paying for another necessity, like food, rent, medicine or child care. No one in our society should have to make those heartbreaking decisions. But they do, every day.

Studies show that income inequality and water inequality are matters of life and death. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently found that the poorest residents of southeast Michigan die six years sooner than the poor in other U.S. metro areas. And an April 2017 Henry Ford Global Health Initiative study found that water shutoffs increase the potential for serious water-borne illnesses and impact the entire neighborhood block where the shutoff occurs, stressing communities already challenged by daily economic struggles.

A year after the Blue Ribbon Panel issued its report, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced that it would shut off water to 18,000 Detroit customers with delinquent accounts. DWSD also promoted a $5 million relief program to help qualifying customers pay their bill, along with other assistance. That approach may have some impact in the short term, but it can’t solve a structural problem better addressed by a sustainable water affordability plan.

Detroit’s elected leaders can make Detroit a water affordability pioneer like Philadelphia. Experts and supporters are ready to help them start this work. But leadership’s political will, imagination and compassion will be needed to make water affordability in Detroit a reality.

Cindy Estrada is a vice president of the United Auto Workers.


Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.