‘A moral crisis’: Metro Detroit faith leaders call for end to water shutoffs, adoption of income-based rates

The call comes amid rising service rates as the city’s water department embarks on door-knocking campaign to get customers on payment plans

The Rev. Kenita Harris has long witnessed many Detroit families struggle to pay for a basic life necessity: water. 

In the minister’s eyes, lacking access to clean, safe, and affordable water robs families of common dignity. 

“People cannot drink. They cannot cook. They cannot flush toilets, or maintain sanitation,” said Harris, a minister at Detroit Bible Tabernacle. “The lack of water threatens the lives of people and disrupts community health and well-being.” 

Under a powder blue, cloudless sky, Harris was among the faith leaders and activists who convened in front of the Spirit of Detroit Plaza Monday afternoon. A white banner showcasing the group’s mantra “water is life,” fluttered in the wind. 

Testimonial after testimonial underscored faith leaders’ advocacy for an economic tool they believe could halt the decades-long practice of shutting off water to low-income residents who fall behind in their bills, which they deemed as inhumane. 

The faith leaders advocate for an income-based water affordability plan that would index water bills to ratepayers’ incomes. These actions, faith leaders hope, would provide much-needed economic relief to residents living in poverty while keeping water utility systems solvent.

“It’s time to implement that plan, pass it and make it real,” said the Rev. Bill Wylie Kellerman, an author and retired pastor at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. 

The leaders’ calls-to-action come as some water departments across Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties have resumed water shutoffs. 

Water rates also continue to rise across Michigan, precipitated by vendor and global supply chain challenges and increasing costs needed to remediate aging water and sewer systems. 

This coalition and other activist groups have waged battles with local utility systems over ending water shutoffs for decades. Those tensions escalated in 2014, when the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) cut off water services to over 20,000 homes because of unpaid water bills. The aggressive actions garnered international attention. 

And unaffordable water in Michigan remains a problem. Last year, researchers estimated between 7% and 10% of Michigan households struggled to pay for water service. In 2018, some metro Detroit households paid more than $900 annually for water and sewer services. Since then, residents are also using a larger percentage of their household income to pay for water. 

Sister Mary Ellen Howard, a former public health nurse, is troubled by the impact shutoffs and unaffordable water bills bear on vulnerable residents, like children, elders and people with disabilities.

Detroit water activists call for an end to water shutoff and adoption of income-based rates on Monday, March 21. Photo by Eleanore Catolico.

“This is a moral crisis,” she said. “If we care about public health and the right to life, we will find a way to provide clean water to everyone.”

Detroit water activists have been pressuring DWSD to adopt an income-based water affordability plan

Such a plan recommends setting water charges at no more than 2.5% of median household income, an affordability standard established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2017, Philadelphia’s water board approved an income-based water rate plan, one of the few utilities in the country to do so.

So far, the advocates’ efforts to adopt such a plan in Detroit have proven unsuccessful. In 2016, Detroit city council members rejected an income-based proposal. DWSD officials have long argued against an income-based water rate plan, arguing that such a plan would result in higher water rates for other utility customers. Instead, they support additional state and federal funding to supplement existing local water assistance programs designed to help residents living in poverty. 

“We have compassionate programs with funding available for these households – they simply need to apply,” DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh told Planet Detroit.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Detroit city officials instituted a water shutoff moratorium in March 2020. The State of Michigan followed in December of 2020 when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order placing a moratorium on water shutoffs statewide. The statewide moratorium expired on April 1, 2021.

While Detroit’s water shutoff moratorium won’t expire until the end of 2022, the city’s water and sewerage department is receiving significantly less revenue needed to run their operations, according to officials. During the pandemic, water, sewerage, and drainage collection rates have dropped to 75%. Pre-pandemic, the collection rate was 93%. 

Peckinpaugh described the shortfall in an email as an “unintended consequence of the residential water shut-off moratorium.” The department’s most recent data shows residential accrued water debts, commonly referred to as arrearages, at $180 million. As a result, he said the department is facing a $38 million shortfall this fiscal year and could not fill several open positions that support service delivery. 

Starting in April, DWSD will launch a door-to-door outreach campaign encouraging eligible households to apply to one of the department’s water bill assistance programs

DWSD officials are also considering a permanent residential water shutoff moratorium for low-income households as long as they are enrolled in an assistance program. The water and sewerage department is also conducting a water rate study and plans to propose a new rate structure to the Board of Water Commissioners in May. 

Yet faith leaders and water activists still voiced concerns about what cities will do once water shutoff moratoriums end. Current protections don’t erase arrearages. 

“There is no plan again for what’s going to happen at the beginning of next year,” Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the People’s Water Board Coalition,  said. “All of those arrearage bills here in the city of Detroit are going to have to be paid.”

Orduño and other activists remain firm in their conviction that an affordability-based plan is the best path forward.  

“We have to ensure that every person in the state of Michigan has safe, clean, affordable drinking water that they need for their daily use, and that no one should ever be disconnected from something that is vital for life,” she said.

Detroiters behind on their water bills can call Wayne Metro at 313-386-9727 to apply for assistance. Eligibility for programs includes households at 150% of area median income for cash assistance and 200% of area median income for a $25 monthly bill credit for up to two years.

Planet Detroit’s 2022 Detroit Energy and Environment Reporting Fellow is a partnership between Planet Detroit,  Energy News Network’s (ENN), and the Detroit Equity Action Lab at the Damon. J Keith Center at the University of Michigan Law School. The work is funded in part by the Kresge Foundation and the Porter Family Foundation.

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