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Bureaucracy, not money, is biggest obstacle for Detroit renters without water

Jul 6, 2017

 

Keeria Myles moved into a little white bungalow on Rosemont Ave. in Detroit last January. She had a furnace and water heater installed, and was starting to remodel the kitchen.

But then, she got a letter saying the house was in tax foreclosure and would be auctioned in September. Shortly after that, her water got shut off.

Myles went to the water department, and she told them she was willing to pay off the $2,500 bill for the water used before she moved in. But the water department said she didn’t have the right paperwork. She wasn’t on the deed, and the person named as the seller on her lease-to-purchase agreement didn’t match the owner of record. So, she went to the Wayne County Treasurer’s office.  

But the auction isn’t until September. So Myles moved herself and her daughter in with her disabled parents.

"I'm like, what do I need to do to get the water on? I'm living with an 8-year-old. They told me, 'Well, either move out or wait 'til it goes up for auction."

"I'm like, what do I need to do to get the water on? I'm living with an 8-year-old. They told me, 'Well, either move out or wait 'til it goes up for auction,'" says Myles. 

It’s a situation affecting many renters in Detroit.

“For there to be no program for someone to assume responsibility for a [water] bill is crazy,” says Michele Oberholtzer, who coordinates the Tax Foreclosure Prevention Project at United Community Housing Coalition. She says the situation is particularly frustrating for tenants who want to buy the home they’re living in from the tax auction.

“Last year, one of the families I worked with on this issue, she had a young child,” says Oberholtzer. “She had to move out of her home while the water was shut off, but she was still attempting to purchase it. While she was gone, it was scrapped and completely destroyed. Now it’s a vacant house, she’s still a renter, and it’s just an avoidable situation.”

The problem is this: On April 1 of each year, the Wayne County Treasurer technically becomes the owner of foreclosed properties. By that point, many of the former property owners have stopped paying the water bill, and the shutoffs start. But for a tenant to open a water account in their own name, they need two things: money and paperwork. And it’s the paperwork test they’re failing because they can’t get a piece of paper from the owner, which is the county, authorizing them to open the account.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown says he wants residents to be able to open water accounts, regardless of the foreclosure status of the property.

“I want to grow my market share. I want to grow my accounts," Brown said. “We just want to ensure we’re not cutting on the water for a person who does not own the property.”

In response to a Michigan Radio inquiry to the Wayne County Treasurer’s office about this issue, spokesman Bruce Babiarz said, “the treasurer’s preparing a list to DWSD of non-owner-occupied properties that have been foreclosed upon. And he will authorize DWSD to turn on the water in the occupants’ name.”

Michele Oberholtzer of UCHC says that's progress. But she says this resolution will likely leave some residents behind. She says Wayne County Treasurer property data is not current, and there are many properties whose status as owner-occupied or non-owner-occupied are incorrect in the system. 

"Residents should have the ability to have access to water while the home is in foreclosure, regardless of their relationship to the property, if they are willing to pay," Oberholtzer says. 

 

Diane Swift is living without water in the upper flat she shares with her daughter and 10-year-old grandson.
Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

But the new policy should help Diane Swift, who says she can’t get her water back on soon enough. She’s been spending about $10 a day to buy several 3-gallon jugs of water. She's been hauling the jugs up the stairs to her flat near the old state fairgrounds ever since her water got shut off a couple of weeks ago. The home she rents is also in tax foreclosure.

“We have two adult women that have to wash their bodies. We have a 10-year-old that every time he eats, he has a bowel movement. So the toilet has to be flushed,” says Swift.

The grandmother works second shift cleaning offices for General Motors. She says all she wants to do when she comes in the door each night after 1 a.m. is take a shower.

“It’s getting to the point I am so exhausted, I can barely do my job,” she says. “It’s been hard. It’s been stressful. I have high blood pressure. I constantly have headaches every day. I’ve called off work several days. If I call off again, I’m jeopardize my job. Just because I don’t have water. It’s crazy.”