The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s freshly unveiled Lifeline Plan aims to help eligible households keep their water service and erase past debt. But water justice activists and residents want more information, transparency, and accountability.
Five years later, the memories of barely having enough never left Sonja Bonnett.
On the hardest days of survival, the Detroit mother told her children to ration bottled water so they could wash their faces and brush their teeth. Water wasn’t flowing from the faucets at her eastside home. She couldn’t pay the bill. She didn’t have a job and failed to qualify for an assistance program.
Out of desperation came creativity: she used water running from the house next door to clean her dishes after giving her neighbor a few dollars.
Because the basic necessity was so scarce, Bonnett’s mind often spiraled into painful places.
“You’re worried about when they go to school,” she said during a press conference last week. “Are they going to tell somebody? Are they going to tell the teacher? Are they gonna tell a classmate, ‘we ain’t got no water at home?’”
She felt like she did something wrong. She felt like she let her children down.
Bonnett isn’t afraid to tell her story. In the Blackest city in America, she doesn’t want families like her own to suffer the same harsh fate.
Water is considered affordable when the cost isn’t creating a financial burden on people. And a life without water deprives families of a basic human need, protection from illness as well as common dignity, Detroit’s water justice activists say. They have argued for decades that water bills should be based on a person’s income.
Since at least 2005, they’ve been pressuring city officials to adopt an income-based water rate plan, a solution they say can make water affordable to families grappling with poverty while keeping utility systems solvent. They’ve also championed a ten-point framework for any future water affordability plan the city may adopt.
But for years, city leaders resisted that call, saying that such a plan wouldn’t work in Detroit and was likely to be illegal under the state’s Headlee Amendment. As recently as 2020, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh said that “an income-based rate would harm many Detroiters.” He said that because so many of the city’s residents live in poverty, an income-based rate plan would shift unsustainable cost burdens to other water customers.
Instead, the city adopted temporary water assistance programs that did little to address the needs of those living in chronic poverty. In the meantime, participants in these programs accumulated arrearages, or accrued water debt, for unpaid bills.
But finally, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, city officials have heeded the call. DWSD recently unveiled the Lifeline Plan, touting it as an income-based water affordability pilot program geared toward helping residential customers who are struggling to pay for water services.
But Bonnett is among many water justice activists who’ve cast doubt over the city’s latest effort. They said their concerns have been largely ignored, and demanded more transparency and accountability over the program. They want more details on how the plan will be implemented and funded, an elected ombudsmen to ensure oversight and provide a feedback mechanism as concerns arise, and stronger and more meaningful community engagement, to name a few.
And as staggering inflation puts the financial squeeze on families who also confront rising costs for other essentials like gas and food, activists say the plan doesn’t do enough to shield low-income residents from the threat of water shutoffs. The city’s water shutoff moratorium will end Jan. 1.
Unaffordable water in Michigan persists as an environmental justice concern. Last year, researchers estimated between 7% and 11% of Michigan households struggled to pay for water service. Households in large cities pay more annually, about $124 on average, for water than households outside of large cities. In 2018, some metro Detroit households paid more than $900 annually for water and sewer services.
In Bonnett’s eyes, the city’s plan falls woefully short of what she believes Detroiters deserve.
“Water is a human right. It is your right. It is my right,” Bonnett said. “And it should be affordable. And it should not burden poor Black and brown people in this city.”
Pathways toward water security
Trumpeted as the first income-based water affordability measure in Detroit, the Lifeline Plan, officials said, carves a path forward to end water shutoffs for the financially vulnerable.
The need is real. More than 80,000 residential customers have delinquent balances, a DWSD spokesperson told Planet Detroit. There are 230,000 active residential accounts currently. Starting Aug. 1, the average monthly residential bill will be $79.59, based on water, sewer, and drainage charges. Most residential customers, about 70%, will see a minor drop in their monthly bill due to the department’s rate study and the transition to an inclining block rate for water usage. Last year, the average monthly bill was roughly $81.62.
The Lifeline Plan offers eligible residential customers a fixed monthly rate on their water bill for up to 4,500 gallons per month and would erase any arrearages. Officials said the average Detroit household with three people uses 2,300 to 3,000 gallons of water per month. Residential customers who exceed 4,500 gallons per month will receive a higher bill depending on the water used.
The enrollment period started July 1 and is administered through the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, a nonprofit which offers utility assistance, housing counseling, foreclosure prevention, and other services to residents with low or moderate incomes across the county.
There are three different ways to qualify under the plan:
- For the first tier, a resident must be receiving benefits from either the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Food Assistance Program (FAP). These households pay $18 per month for water, sewer and drainage services.
- The second tier is for eligible customers who do not receive SNAP/FAP benefits and are considered low-income. These households pay $43 per month for services.
- The third tier is for eligible customers who live in moderate-income households and do not receive SNAP/FAP benefits. These households pay $56 per month for services.
Income range is based on household size. The spokesperson said there are roughly 100,000 SNAP/FAP eligible households, 38,000 low-income non-SNAP/FAP households, and 36,000 moderate-income households in Detroit. DWSD serves 230,000 accounts.
The plan will charge low-income residents no more than 1.8% of their average monthly income for water service. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a water affordability threshold at no more than 2.5% of household income.
Officials stress there are multiple pathways to avoid service interruption. In addition to the Lifeline Plan there’s the 10/30/50 plan, another assistance program that requires a down payment and has no income restrictions to qualify. The spokesperson said that no household will lose water service if enrolled in an assistance program.
And new water rates are on the horizon. The Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC), the utility’s oversight body, recently approved a new inclining block rate structure, which will begin on Aug. 1. The city’s water customers will be charged a lower rate for usage at or below 4,500 gallons, or 6 centum cubic feet of water (CCF). One CCF equals one hundred cubic feet of water or roughly 748 gallons.
The new water rate is $2.504 per CCF per month at or below 6 CCF, which is lower than the previous rate. Above that threshold, the uniform rate is $4.492 CCF per month. The sewage rate is $5.40 per CCF for total usage. The drainage rate went up from $677 to $678.28 per month per impervious acreage or hard surface area. DWSD is also encouraging residents to seek out Wayne Metro’s programs which help with plumbing audits and repairs. Leaks often increase water usage, leading to a higher bill.
Gary Brown, the DWSD director, anticipates Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will approve another $10 million per year for the next five years to help low-income residents repair at-home leaks. The department will review these cases individually if a household exceeds the 4,500-gallon limit despite repairs.
Detroit joins a handful of municipalities that have implemented similar water affordability measures, including Washington D.C.’s Lifeline Rate, which served as a model for the city’s plan, Brown told BridgeDetroit and The Detroit Free Press, and Philadelphia’s Tiered Assistance Program.
The plan, which officials said was developed in collaboration with water advocates and affordability experts, has garnered key proponents, including Abdul El-Sayed, the former head of the Detroit Health Department.
But other groups, including We The People Detroit, say the plan was adopted without an adequate period for public review. They also say they have questions about the plan’s long-term funding, eligibility requirements, and program access and enrollment strategy.
Brown disputes activists’ claims that the department hasn’t engaged water justice activists and been transparent.
“DWSD has provided all the documents, including the rate and affordability studies, used to develop the Lifeline Plan to the water advocates,” Brown said in a statement.
The department is currently drafting a working policy for the plan, which will be shared with community leaders and water advocates and posted on the city’s website.
While the activists appreciate that the city’s plan is income-based, they don’t think it resolves affordability issues.
Theresa Landrum, an environmental justice activist from southwest Detroit, feels disheartened. The longtime resident of 48217 has described the last several years fighting for an income-based plan as “a decade of begging.” She fears some residents won’t qualify for the three-tiered plan and be left unprotected.
“And many of the people are what I call now the retired poor,” Landrum said. “The people that have limited income, that is, fixed income. No matter how high inflation rises, their income does not rise.”
Activists scrutinized the plan’s water usage limitation.
“Connecting it to usage is problematic,” Cecily McClellan, a co-founder of We the People of Detroit, said, adding that the city “did not provide real people, any advocates, an opportunity to truly share what their concerns are in regards to the structure, organization, [and] the implementation of this program.”
McClellan remembers the days when residents lost their homes because they couldn’t pay for water. She’s worked inside churches, helping deliver donated water to those in need. Over the years, one crisis has intensified another: in 2016, citizen-led research discovered many of Detroit’s tax-foreclosed homes had unpaid water debts. The analysis stemmed from a water department policy that allowed unpaid water bills to roll into property taxes.
Despite the Lifeline Plan’s best intentions, many questions still linger for McClellan. She remains skeptical about the current version of the Lifeline Plan. She said she and others feel largely ignored and left in the dark.
U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib echoed McClellan’s frustrations, describing the department’s latest action as a missed opportunity to meaningfully engage residents impacted by the water affordability crisis.
“Again, I’m glad that we’re moving forward. And [DWSD] are actually saying the words ‘water affordability plan.’ That’s a big improvement,” she said. “But we can’t do this without having the people that know how effective it can be…on the ground.”
More money needed to keep program afloat
Moving forward, DWSD officials are seeking a more permanent funding solution to sustain the Lifeline Plan. As of now, the regional Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) program is allocating about $5 million a year for the Lifeline Plan. The federal Low-income Households Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), a temporary emergency program offering low-income homeowners and renters assistance with delinquent water and wastewater bills, has also earmarked about $10 million to the city.
Along with water advocates, community leaders, and elected officials, the department will continue lobbying for a permanent LIHWAP program necessary to provide long-term funding for the city’s income-based water affordability program.
Since the program’s rollout began, Wayne Metro has received more than 1,600 phone calls from residents asking about the program and has received more than 225 applications so far, a DWSD spokesperson said. The 2,500 Detroit households enrolled in WRAP will be switched to the Lifeline Plan.
The department also established a goal of enrolling 20,000 Detroit households into the plan and has already embarked on a door-to-door outreach campaign to help residents enroll in the program.
‘A need for everybody’
The financial pains are real, and Detroiters like Migale Fresh feel the pinch.
Fresh sat idling in his boxy, white van on Woodward and State a few days ago. As a delivery driver, he spends his days dropping off breads, cookies, and cakes at local cafes across the city. Next to him, his young son waited quietly in the passenger seat.
A lifelong eastsider and a single father, Fresh swells with pride as he takes out his smartphone and shows off a picture of a small pond, filled with turtles, frogs, and fish, which he just built in the backyard of his home.
Fresh is searching for help. Money is tight. He’s been paying about $400 for groceries each month. Right now, he’s not getting SNAP benefits even though his family needs them.
Over the years, a generosity of spirit inspired him to let friends and family members stay at his house. The water use went up, and so did the bills. Fresh said he owes about $5,000 in unpaid water debt.
Fresh is cautiously optimistic about the Lifeline Plan and hopes to apply. But he’s worried about what will happen to him and other Detroiters when the shutoff moratorium ends.
“If you don’t have water, you can’t drink. You can’t bathe,” he said. “There’s a need for everybody.”
DWSD will schedule 10 community engagement events starting July 19, which will educate residents on the Lifeline Plan, pre-enroll eligible households on site, and solicit input on the plan. That input may inform future amendments, which the BOWC would review by the end of the calendar year. Event details are being finalized.