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Helping low-income residents pay bills doesn’t solve Detroit's water affordability problem

Jul 26, 2017

Detroit is in the midst of turning off the water at homes with unpaid utility bills. Meanwhile, Philadelphia – another major city struggling with water affordability – recently launched a program allowing low-income residents to pay for water based on income, not usage. Philadelphia is the first city in the nation to enact such a program.

According to Peter Hammer, Wayne State University law professor and Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Detroit activists came up with a similar water-affordability plan in 2003 that never gained political traction.

“For over a decade people have been fighting for water affordability here in Detroit,” Hammer said. “The actual structure and design of the Philadelphia plan is really an export from Detroit.”

Hammer says Detroit adopted a watered-down version of the plan but failed to implement it. Ironically, Hammer says crafting a water payment system based on residents' ability to pay would increase revenues for the city.

Detroit’s Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) disburses money to assist residents with paying their water bills. But Hammer argues WRAP is more of a band-aid fix akin to “bailing water out of a sinking boat.” He says because of the high level of poverty in Detroit, assisting residents with paying their existing bills does not solve the underlying problem of unaffordable water rates, and it may not be a sustainable solution.

Detroit officials say a high percentage of residents who get their water shut off join a payment plan and have service restored within 24 hours. Hammer says he is not sure the data is complete. Troubling still to Hammer is the prospect of residents who make a payment in order to quickly get their water service restored, but who still struggle with poverty.

“That doesn’t deal with the fact that they can’t meet any of the other bills,” Hammer said. “In many respects what you’re saying now is ‘I’m going to pay my water but I’m not going to pay my medicine, or my food or my rent.”

Hammer says adopting a water-affordability plan is possible for Detroit, but it would take a willing effort by Detroit’s political leaders. He calls Detroit’s current policy of shutting off water to homes with unpaid bills draconian, and a symptom of broken social systems.

“Rather than having a compassionate commitment to the historic residents of Detroit, we’ve adopted all sorts of policies that focus on displacement,” Hammer said.

Listen to the entire conversation with Peter Hammer, Wayne State University law professor and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, above.

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