Four years ago, Detroit began aggressively shutting off water service to customers with overdue bills.
Since then, the number of shutoffs has fallen. There are new options for people who need help with their water bills.
It has made a difference, but plenty of households are still falling through cracks in the system.
Water shutoffs down, but threat looms for thousands
When Gary Brown took over the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in 2016, he says around 50,000 households were in danger of getting their water cut off, “and the only reason 50,000 people weren’t shut off was because DWSD didn’t have the capacity to get to them all.”
That number is way down now. But as of this April, more than 17,000 Detroit households still faced potential shutoff.
Brown says Detroiters who truly can’t afford their water bills now have more options. There are different payment plans available. And for low-income customers, there’s the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP), which Brown calls “the most robust, compassionate, generous program in America.”
WRAP is run by the Great Lakes Water Authority, the regional water authority that emerged from Detroit’s bankruptcy process. The program is funded with a portion of the GLWA’s revenues. It serves a number of communities around southeast Michigan, but the need for water assistance is by far the greatest in Detroit.
WRAP works by freezing a customer’s back debt. For those who stay in the program, there’s some payment assistance over time. After a year, debts worth up to $700 are cleared.
WRAP offers other services too, including a home water audit, and fixes for the old pipes, leaky toilets, and other plumbing problems that can cause people to run up huge bills.
Brown says the program works.
“We’ve set up a program that has over a 90% success rate, if we can get you into the program,” he said. “That’s our challenge.”
That is the challenge.
DWSD data show that about one-third of people who have applied and pre-qualified for WRAP didn’t receive any assistance.
And then there are the people who can’t even get in the door. Brown admits there tends to be a backlog in the spring, when the city resumes water shutoffs.
And WRAP help isn't always available for people who have been in the program before. That’s apparently what Evelyn Fisher ran into last month.
Fisher lives alone in a small house on Detroit’s east side. She’s disabled, on a fixed income. When she got a water shutoff notice, she called WRAP.
“They said I couldn’t get any help until September,” Fisher said.
Facing the prospect of a whole summer without water, Fisher says she looked everywhere for some kind of assistance — but none was available.
“When you call around, there’s really no help,” Fisher said. “That’s what I was more upset about than anything.”
Fisher did get some help at the last minute. The Salvation Army stepped in, and put up a down payment to get her on a payment plan.
Housing paperwork a barrier
Even when the help is there, there’s another big reason why many Detroiters can’t get water assistance: They don’t have the right formal paperwork on their property.
It’s really a housing issue, and it’s a pervasive problem in many Detroit neighborhoods. Gary Brown is familiar with it.
“They don’t have a legal right to be on the property,” Brown said. “That’s a real issue that my customer service department deals with every day. If you own a home, I can’t cut the water on in someone else’s name if you haven’t authorized them to be there.”
We’re not talking about squatters. Often, there’s a missing or unresponsive landlord, and confusion over who’s responsible for the water bill. And programs like WRAP require participants to have valid leases that show they’re responsible for the water bill.
“I don’t let tenants cut the water on in the landlord’s name, and I don’t let the landlord cut the water on in the tenant’s name,” Brown said. “I could get sued if I did that.”
There are other common reasons people lack the right paperwork. People may have inherited homes from family members, but never actually got a deed for the property. And there are people living in some of the thousands of Detroit properties facing tax foreclosure.
Ethel Harris is a good example of how this kind of situation can unfold.
Harris got her home in a blight-stricken neighborhood near Detroit’s City Airport last fall, through an informal arrangement with the owner’s grandson. Her old home was damaged in a fire, and she was desperate.
“He never did come back,” Harris said of the grandson. “He had said, ‘You want that house, you can have it. You pay the taxes and stuff it’s yours.”
But the house was already in tax foreclosure. Harris is now trying to buy it herself through a special county buy-back program.
It turns out her biggest problem is the water bill. When Harris got a bill for more than $2,500, she tried to tell the water department it couldn’t possibly be hers.
“It was crazy. I couldn’t use that much water in a year. Two years,” Harris said.
But the customer service agent told Harris she was stuck with the bill.
By law, the foreclosure process is supposed to wipe out past debts. But Harris initially had no paperwork to make her case, or to apply for assistance. And she’s the guardian of her 33-year-old autistic grandson, who’s incontinent.
So Harris scraped together money for a payment plan. She’s not sure she can keep up with it, but she says she had no choice.
“It’s not fair. But I gotta do what I gotta do,” Harris said. “I have to pay in order to stay here. I want to stay here, and have to have water.”
Assistance versus affordability
Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, sees situations like Harris’s all the time.
“A great deal of people will agree to almost anything, because they’re desperate to keep their water on and the water situation is dire for them,” she said.
Orduño says she’s seen many people agree to payment plans they can’t really afford, or who can’t afford to make a large down payment (DWSD says the vast majority of customers on payment plans maintain their water service).
And payment plans require customers to waive their right to challenge any large past debts that may not be valid — a problem Orduño says has been rampant since the city moved from estimated bills to a metering system several years ago.
Orduño thinks water assistance programs like WRAP aren’t really designed to help the poorest of the poor. “This is the part that we keep trying to tell them, is you’ve got to look at this from the experience of your lowest-income customers,” she said. “Because they’re the ones who continue to have the problems,”
Orduño and other activists fighting Detroit’s water shutoff policy argue the city needs a new approach to water rates: an income-based rate structure that charges its poorest customers what they can afford.
City leaders say that’s not an option for legal reasons, though others dispute their argument that state law precludes cities from having income-based utility service charges.
Orduño says the result is a permanent class of Detroiters facing chronic water insecurity. “To say that you can’t have it because you can’t afford it is totally the wrong approach,” she said.
But DWSD director Gary Brown insists there’s only so much he can do.
“We’re trying to be as compassionate as we can,” Brown said. “At the same time, I’m legally bound to try and collect.
“I can’t solve the issue of poverty in the city of Detroit.”
Update 6/1/2018 at 1:50 p.m.: This story was updated to correct information about why Evelyn Fisher couldn't get assistance from the WRAP program until September. According to DWSD, customers who have previouisly been in the program can't re-enroll for one year after exiting.