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Thousands face potential water shutoffs in Detroit, starting Tuesday

May 2, 2016

Credit jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

Some 20,000 Detroit water customers could have their water shut off starting Tuesday.

That's how many are behind on their bills, according to the city.

In Detroit, the average monthly water bill is $75. The average past due amount? $633.

All those unpaid bills add up: Last March, the city was owed some $47 million in past-due residential bills – though a department spokesperson said they’re not sure what the current amount owed is, because so many people are currently making payments to avoid shutoffs.

“We’re processing up to four payments a minute,” says Linda Clark, a spokesperson for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

An expensive cycle – both for residents and the city

But many Detroiters have been through this same process before.

There’s been a cycle the last few years, where the city announces shutoffs are coming, and thousands of people rush to get on payment plans.

Those plans let you make a 10% down payment on what you owe, then pay off your past-due amount over the next 24 months.

But that’s on top of your regular monthly bill.

And if you miss a payment, you need to pay 30% of what you owe to get back on the plan. Miss another payment? Pay 50% of the arrearage.

In total, the plan gives residents two years to pay off that debt. 

Which may be why, in the past, the vast majority of Detroiters on payment plans ended up falling back off those plans – especially during the winter, when the shutoffs stop.

“It's tough,” Andrea Malone told Michigan Radio last May, when the shutoffs had once again resumed and Malone had – yet again – fallen off the payment plans. "It's either pay the water bill or get it shut off. And I can't be without water. So, I'm struggling."

And critics of the plans say that’s why payment plans haven’t worked.   

DeMeeko Williams, political director for the Detroit Water Brigade, says: if someone’s got $1,500 in past due water bills, they may be able to make the 10% down payment to get on a payment plan.

But spread out the rest of the debt over 24 months, and they’re still looking at another $56 on top of their current bill – just to stay on the plan.  

“So yes, there are payment plans, but they’re not easy enough for you to satisfy over the period that they’re asking you for,” Williams says. “It’s like the water department expects you to fail, within the first few months.”

This time, the city hopes to end the cycle

Still, Linda Clark, a spokesperson for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, says they’re hopeful that this time around will be different.

“A lot of people, um, discontinue their payment plan during [the winter,] with a sense that, you know, ‘They [the water department] are not going to disconnect me.’ Which is a big mistake of course, because then you just become further and further behind, and it becomes more difficult to catch up.”

She says within 10 days after getting notice of potential shutoff, about 80% of those customers sign up for payment plans.

Clark says the city’s well aware that most people have fallen off these plans in the past, and there's a new assistance program for low income residents.

The WRAP (Water Residential Assistance Program) is available to Detroiters and suburban water customers who fall within 150% of the federal poverty line. That’s less than $36,000 for a family of four.

The program freezes past-due amounts for 12 months, and gives them a $25 monthly credit on new water bills. It also offers home water audits and repairs for residents with high water bills.

“I’m really hoping people take advantage of WRAP, and of coming in and talking with someone about the 10/30/50 plan because there’s so many options there for you,” says Clark. “So yes, we are very, very hopeful that people do stay on these plans.”  

If you’re facing shutoff, you can find help at these websites: 

http://www.waynemetro.org/content/requestform

http://www.detroitmi.gov/dwsd

http://detroitwaterbrigade.org/