OPINION: Detroit broke its promise on water shutoffs. Here’s what it needs to do to keep it.

The city’s Lifeline Plan is commendable but not enough. A comprehensive solution requires access to assistance and affordability.

Last week, the City of Detroit announced that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department would resume water shutoffs –a controversial and punitive method of debt collection for households unable to afford their water bills. 

The decision to resume shutoffs comes after the expiration of a moratorium first required by the State of Michigan in 2020 during the COVID pandemic and voluntarily extended by the City. The voluntary extension was welcomed by residents, particularly because the announcement came with a promise to end water shutoffs permanently.

Yet, in the years that followed, the City made minimal effort and progress toward keeping that promise – culminating in last week’s disappointing announcement to break it altogether.

Detroit’s water woes didn’t start with the pandemic. We’ve had a long history of impediments to equitable water access, including paying some of the highest water bills in the country, having the highest water burden amongst comparable cities (water bills accounting for more than 10% of household incomes), and experiencing what the United Nations declared a human rights violation when the City shut off water at nearly 30,000 homes in one summer less than ten years ago. 

That’s what makes this broken promise so shameful. The people of Detroit have long asked for a solution to this problem. We believe a permanent moratorium on shutoffs would help alleviate the stress and anxiety triggered by wondering whether you’ll have access to running water tomorrow.

The city has at least taken a meaningful step towards providing relief to its most overburdened residents through its Lifeline Plan – a low-income water assistance program announced just over a year ago. When enrolled and in compliance with the plan’s terms, residents can benefit from shutoff protection, erasure of past due balances, an affordable fixed monthly bill, and a water audit that could help pay for minor plumbing repairs. 

Lifeline is a commendable program that I encourage eligible residents to enroll in. However, not all residents are eligible – and enrollment numbers haven’t been stellar since city officials announced the plan over a year ago. 

The city has enrolled about 22,000 households; just a third of the more than 60,000 households with delinquent bills now at risk of shutoff. And those numbers are also bolstered by the automatic enrollment of 2,500 households already on the existing county-level Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP).

That’s why we need a comprehensive water affordability plan that would complement the City’s assistance program and ensure that all Detroiters are paying rates they can afford, unburdened by the threat of being shut off. 

But what might a comprehensive water affordability plan look like?

First, any affordability plan must reflect the needs of the community. Government decision-makers must engage residents and community-based organizations meaningfully to help shape the strategy. 

Fortunately, we have advocacy organizations like We the People of Detroit and The People’s Water Board Coalition, who have been working in and with communities for years, engaging them to understand better what’s needed. Start there – by listening to our most trusted and reputable advocates.

By doing so, we’ll see a few recurring themes we must include in an affordability plan: 1) a tiered, income-based rate structure, 2) a permanent moratorium on water shutoffs, and 3) an accessible low-income household water assistance program.

A tiered, income-based rate structure would compel DWSD to set water rates that apply to homes with household incomes at or below a fixed percentage of the federal poverty level. Tiers would ensure that water rates equitably match a household’s ability to pay, not simply the water used. This approach means residents could stay current on their payments while ensuring DWSD has a predictable stream of revenue for operations.

A moratorium is crucial because, simply, water is life. Threatening to cut people off from an essential life-sustaining resource is absolutely the human rights violation that the United Nations says it is. So, a permanent shutoff moratorium is a no-brainer. 

The City claims that the COVID moratorium resulted in decreased revenue.  But the City should have addressed affordability under the moratorium; it could have generated revenue had it done so. A moratorium and affordability go hand-in-hand.

Finally, the city needs an accessible low-income household water assistance program. The Lifeline Plan is on the right track –  but it’s not accessible to all those in need. Not everyone knows about it or how to apply. It unfairly limited the amount of water participants can use. And eligibility is too stringently determined by income. 

To improve the program, the city should conduct meaningful engagement and marketing to educate and enroll households, expand the income threshold for eligibility from 200% to at least 250% of the federal poverty level, and not restrict the amount of water usage for enrolled households as it currently does.

These components are the bare minimum for a comprehensive water affordability plan for the City. These recommendations may sound oversimplified, but they aren’t. 

I’m simply saying, “Make water affordable for everyone, don’t shut off people’s access to water, and ensure that those in need can access financial assistance.” It’s the least the City can do for the hard-working people of Detroit.


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