On Monday, during a Detroit City Council meeting, officials and activists convened to form a workgroup to evaluate the effectiveness of the city’s current water bill assistance programs, and to begin proposing an affordability program. These assistance programs arose in response to an outpouring of public outrage and critique after the city implemented extensive water shut-offs occurred throughout its residential areas last year. These programs were created to alleviate the financial burden of unpaid water bills and prevent future infringements upon residents’ basic human rights. However, concerns about continually delinquent accounts and another set of impending water shut-offs set for later in the month demonstrate that Detroit’s efforts to remedy the situation — while well-intentioned — are precariously delayed .
Initiated by an announcement from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in March 2014, 46,000 shut-off notices were issued to residents with delinquent water payments and water service ceased for roughly 4,531 customers in May of last year. A similar scenario of water shut-offs is expected to occur later this month. Even with the creation of these assistance programs last year, 20,000 to 25,000 households in Detroit have been declared delinquent on their water bills, which means their payments are at least 60 days overdue or residents are in debt by $150 or more . Residents are then given a mere 10 days to respond by seeking assistance or making a payment before losing service. The re-emergence of shut-offs and of citizens’ continued inability to afford their water bills highlights the city’s failure to find a way to address this long-standing problem in a timely manner. Concerns about this year’s delinquent accounts should have been addressed far sooner than just a few weeks, or even a few months, before the shut-offs.
Yet, measures from existing assistance programs — as suggested by Detroit’s Chief Operations Officer Gary Brown — seek to ensure financially struggling residents won’t have their water shut-off simply because they are unable to pay. Financially strained customers can avoid losing service and begin decreasing their debt by enrolling in a payment plan. Since last year’s shut-offs, assistance programs have provided some aid to residents beneath the poverty line who are struggling to pay. According to DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer, approximately 31,000 citizens are enrolled in payment plans, touting an increase of 11,700 individuals since last year. The current program, which underwent revisions in April, assists financially burdened customers by paying 50 percent of overdue charges and covers 25 percent of future bills. A more comprehensive assistance program is expected to be enacted in July.
However, due to the fact that 30 percent of more than 1,800 individuals who were enrolled since September were incapable of maintaining their payments and dropped out of the program, a more sustainable method of assisting Detroit’s low-income populations needs to be implemented. As discussed by the work group committee Monday, efforts to address the delinquent water accounts must shift in focus to the systematic issues surrounding overall water affordability rather than solely providing assistance.
Avoiding discussing affordability will only allow the issue to stagnate, and will worsen some of Detroit’s other existing problems. Water prices in Detroit have continued to rise with an 8.7-percent increase last year and an expected increase of 3.4-percent this coming July, aggravating the current situation. Many delinquent accounts are expected to belong to vacant residences once the shut-offs commence later this month. However, rising water prices — in combination with residents’ strained economic situations — may lead to an increase in abandoned properties as residents negotiate between expenses and choose to vacate properties with no water. While the city’s response has been delayed so far, it must act promptly from this point to address the issue of affordability and make necessary changes in order to prevent the exacerbation of this problem.