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Opinion: Fix the damn shutoffs

Tiffani Ashley Bell

A water shutoff ruins your life.

Since we first read about Detroit’s water affordability crisis in 2014, my organization has helped over 1,100 families — mostly in Detroit — with their water bills by crowdfunding donations. Nobody should need this, though.

We’ve seen people lose custody of their kids thanks to not having water. We’ve seen people struggle to do home dialysis without water. We’ve spoken to senior citizens defecating in holes in their backyard because they’ve gone without water for over a year. 

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown was quoted last week in The Detroit News saying, “The hard part is getting people to come in and ask for help before a service interruption.” 

Our data says otherwise. 

We received over 1,900 applications from Detroiters in 2019. We ask whether the applicant’s water is shutoff and how they heard about us? Over half have applied before shutoff. Most mentioned some variation of “WRAP representative” or “DWSD customer service rep” for how they found us. This suggests people are reaching out to DWSD for help before shutoff.

Demonstrators hold up a display reading "Water is a Human Right" outside Central United Methodist Church in Detroit on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. A coalition of groups protesting residential water shutoffs in Detroit came together for the 20-minute action.

Whether they get meaningful help is a different story, though.

WRAP, with its $25 per month credit toward only the water portion of a bill among other interventions, isn’t the answer. If you’re paying attention, the sewer portion of a water bill is really the problem.

When you’re laid-off, payment plans don’t help. When you’re scraping by on barely $800 a month from Social Security, payment plans don’t help. When you’re fighting for your life against cancer or hobbled by Alzheimer’s, payment plans don’t help.

My organization has seen people in all those situations. It is telling that we now see people who complete WRAP and still owe a large balance. Payment plans really don’t help.

At this point, Detroit City Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield and her team are right to press Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for relief. 

Last year, 398 families outside of Detroit asked for our help. We’ve paid water bills in 26 different Michigan cities.

As I hinted before, Detroit’s sewer bills are the real issue. Detroit’s water infrastructure is aging, extensive, and expensive. Unfortunately, its costs are drowning Detroit’s poorest residents and payment plans won’t keep them afloat.

But the state could.

Michigan could provide funding for water infrastructure and assistance programs like the income-based water affordability program Detroit City Council approved in 2005. 

There has been hand-wringing over whether charging customers different rates based on income is a tax. 

But, as Detroit City Council’s Legislative Policy Division noted in a 2015 memo, Detroit offers a senior citizen discount on trash pickup. If Detroit can equitably address this piece of protecting public health — without anyone arguing the discount is a tax — what makes water different? With an income-based water affordability program in place, state lawmakers could then do their part to lobby the federal government for increased water infrastructure funding. 

Let’s forget the roads and fix the damn shutoffs. 

Tiffani Ashley Bell is the founder and executive director of The Human Utility.