Shutting the tap
Last year, more than 27,000 Detroit homes had water shut off because of what the city says were unpaid bills. In some neighborhoods, 1-in-5 homes lost water access. To find your neighborhood, type in your Detroit address in the box in the upper right. When the map zooms in, click on the map for more information.
Source: Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, Bridge analysis
By Joel Kurth | Bridge Magazine
Camay Larry has a bucket under her gutter and tattoo over her heart.
The bucket collects rainwater from the roof so she can flush her toilet. The tattoo reads “Cry Later” in cursive. It’s become a daily affirmation since the City of Detroit disconnected her water a few weeks ago. She says she needs to stay strong for her one-year-old son, Juan.
“What I’m going through right now, I have to laugh for my baby because he doesn’t know this isn’t normal,” says Larry, 24, whose house on the east side is filled with jugs she spends much of her days refilling.
“I have to keep it together for him because, baby, we’re struggling. He doesn’t know he’s taking a bath in the sink, that I make his bottles from a (neighbor’s) garden hose or that I break down every night and cry.”
Camay bought the house for $3,500 in late 2015. Unbeknownst to her, she said, it came with a $3,400 water bill that is now her responsibility.
This is life today in Detroit, a city that, since its historic bankruptcy, has abandoned its longtime practice of ignoring past-due bills in an effort to end what water officials called a culture of delinquency. When Detroit launched the aggressive shut-off campaign in 2014, drawing international attention, city officials pledged that shutoffs would decline after the initial blitz.
But newly compiled city records obtained by Bridge Magazine through the Freedom of Information Act show that residential shutoffs last year jumped 18 percent over the previous year, to 27,552.
It’s a staggering tally, even for a city where unflattering numbers are the norm. And the numbers contradict a narrative repeated by Detroit officials for years that the shutoffs were an attempt to quickly get residents into compliance and then would decline.
Instead, they’re becoming a way of life. Last year alone, the number of shutoffs equated to almost 1-in-6 of the city’s 175,000 residential accounts. That’s more disconnections in one year than the total number of homes in the city of Saginaw (about 25,000).
In the three years since the campaign began, the city has had 83,000 residential shutoffs, city records show. That’s more than all single-family houses in Southfield, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield and Novi combined.
Another 18,000 residential customers could be next, following the April announcement that shutoffs suspended during cold months are resuming.
A rich legacy of incompetence
Other cities nationwide cut service on delinquent accounts, but what makes Detroit’s situation so challenging is that the city is trying to fix customers’ habits while also trying to fix itself.
Even city officials acknowledge the Water and Sewerage Department has a legacy of ineptitude.
“Honestly? Everything I hear about the water department is almost all negative,” said Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, who has hosted community meetings about water issues.
“The inefficiencies in the department needed to be addressed before they started shutting off water to thousands of people’s water and impacting their lives like that,” she continued.
“Bills are still being sent to the wrong addresses. Water is still shut off at the wrong houses. Water is still running at abandoned houses. They should fix themselves before they start hurting residents.”
She and others said, however, that the department has improved since the shutoff campaign began in 2014, when the city earned condemnation from the United Nations. But Sheffield contends rampant mistakes with bills and customer service have exacerbated the problem.
Quantifying the mistakes is impossible, though, because of limitations to the city’s billing records. Detroit officials acknowledge they don’t know the identity of two-thirds of their customers because most bills are sent to “occupant,” and they don’t know if homes that are shut off are occupied.
Water officials don’t hide from their reputation. Late last month, a spokeswoman for the department, Chandra Lewis, listened patiently as speaker after speaker at an east-side community forum recited horror stories about water bills.
When it was her turn to speak, Lewis smiled, thanked them for bringing the problems to her attention and offered an acknowledgement rarely heard from public officials.
“I’ll be the first to admit that we are having problems with customer service,” Lewis told the Eastside Community Network. She represents a leadership of the water department that took over less than two years ago.
“We ask for your patience,” she said. “We inherited a mess.”
‘Poverty is poverty’
Founded in 1836, the department began with a water system of wooden logs and a sewer made of brick and stone. It grew to serve 43 percent of the population of Michigan, selling water to 126 suburbs and 4 million residents.
Detroit has the reputation for delivering some of the cleanest municipal water in the nation. But over the years, the water department’s failings became the stuff of legend.
Its 3,438-mile network of pipes still contains some made of wood. Drawing water from Lake Huron, the system carries 400 million gallons of water per day ‒ though as much as 80 million gallons of that leaks before reaching customers, according to the department’s 2015 master plan.
Years of suburban frustration over high bills, and Detroit’s bankruptcy, led the city to agree in 2015 to agree to lease the system to a new regional agency, the Great Lakes Water Authority.
The deal gives the city $50 million per year over 40 years to pay for repairs. The suburbs get a stronger voice in setting water rates. And Detroit has to pay its own way, no longer able to pass along the cost of unpaid bills to suburban customers.
But Detroit must do so in a city where 40 percent of residents live in poverty, more than 100,000 homes have been foreclosed in the past 10 years, and water sales are declining every year as conservation efforts increase and the population remains flat.
Perhaps that’s why water department director Gary Brown looks tired.
Meeting with Bridge last week in his downtown office, Brown recounted a recent meeting a with a mother of eight whose water was turned off for nonpayment.
Six of her children tested positive for lead paint poisoning, Brown said. Her water was restored, but her problems will persist, he predicted. Brown wondered aloud if the most humanitarian thing would have been to leave her without water, plunging her into such a crisis that social services agencies would have to intervene so the woman could get “more holistic” help.
“I’ve disconnected a lot of people. But poverty is poverty. These things happen every day,” said Brown, a former deputy police chief and City Council member who became department director in late 2015.
City taking concrete steps
Brown said he takes a “compassionate” approach. He said the intent of shutoffs is to spur residents to get on payment plans and numerous other assistance and repair programs, some of which offer dramatic debt relief if residents keep current on payments.
“I’ve lived in the city all my life. All my family is here,” Brown said. “I’m concerned about water quality like anyone with any humanity.”
In the past year, the department has tripled the size of its customer help staff (bringing it to 30), simplified its bills and added 28 payment kiosks throughout the city to ease what had been long lines at three customer service centers. A payment app is in the works.
Since the shutoffs began, 91 percent of residential customers now are current on bills, up from 77 percent in 2014 and inching closer to the national average of 95 percent, the city said (Unpaid bills from residents and businesses still total $122 million, though, about a third of the department’s $364 million budget).
Another sign of optimism: The 18,000 now eligible for shutoff is down from 24,000 at this time last year. Those numbers fluctuate as the year progresses and some residents fall further behind in bills. The city disconnects accounts that are more than 60 days and $150 delinquent.
Brown said most disconnected customers have water restored within 48 hours. It’s an assertion that’s challenged by water activists and may be impossible to verify. Bridge has attempted to obtain that data, but city officials said the department’s billing system doesn’t track that information.
‘How can my bill be this high?’
If Detroit’s new policy is compassion, water activists said they have yet to see it.
“It’s getting worse, not better,” said Cecily McClellan, a volunteer with the group, We the People of Detroit, that distributes bottled water to disconnected residents.
“There’s insufficient staff and there’s no effort to make water affordable.”
The average family of four pays $75 per month for water in Detroit, a rate that is twice the national average, according to a study by the Washington D.C. based public interest group Food and Water Watch.
The bills squeeze impoverished residents like Burnette Beckham-Stephens. A proud woman, she’s lived on disability since breaking her back a fall at a supermarket in 1983. Her monthly income is $1,111.01. That’s $33 more than she owes on her water bill.
She clutched the paper bill as she walked head high into a payment center on the city’s west side last week. Her water was due to be shut the next day unless she came up with $555. She had no idea how she would.
Beckham-Stephens had been on a repayment plan of $88 per month, but missed payments, forcing her to pay half the delinquency to avoid disconnection. City policy requires disconnected residents to pay 10 percent of their bill to get water restored. The deposit raises to 30 percent, then 50 percent with subsequent missed payments.
“I don’t use that much water. I’ve told (the city) to come out and check but they never do,” said Beckham-Stephens, who had worked as a supervisor at the Selfridge Air National Guard base in Harrison Township before her injury.
“I’m a vegetarian,” she said. “I eat only raw food or food that comes from a can. I’m not too proud to say I take a bath only once a week. How can my bill be this high?”
Michele Oberholzer, who works with a nonprofit to prevent foreclosure, said she has counseled people who have abandoned homes because of water department policies.
New policies require landlords pay $150 deposits on rentals and agree to put in tenants’ names. The rule was created to address concerns about tenants being victimized when landlords didn’t pay water bills. Oberholzer said the policy fails to address chronic absenteeism among landlords, which makes it difficult for tenants to get bills in their names. When they can’t do so, water stays off and the homes can become unoccupied and vandalized.
What’s more, tax foreclosures by law are supposed to wipe away water debt. But the information is rarely conveyed from the Wayne County Treasurer to the water department, Oberholzer said. And even when it is, city clerks often refuse to erase water bills for homes that have gone through foreclosure, she said.
“The (water department’s) policies don’t reflect the complexities of Detroit that even they acknowledge,” said Oberholzer, coordinator of the tax foreclosure prevention project of the United Community Housing Coalition, a Detroit nonprofit.
“This is an issue of humanity. You need water to live. It’s not like a parking ticket. It merits all the sincere concern, frustration and effort we’ve been complaining and fighting about. And we haven’t seen any movement (from the water department).”
Comparing Detroit to other cities
Brown has ended Detroit’s practice of referring unpaid water debt to the county treasurer to be included in tax bills. That’s a policy of many other cities, including New York, which typically doesn’t shut off water for nonpayment but issues tax liens on homes.
The American Water Works Association says in a policy statement that shutoffs should only be used as a last resort, but neither it nor another industry group, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, tracks disconnections by city.
Policies tend to vary. In New Orleans, late bills were ignored last year and no residents were shut off, despite a delinquency rate worse than Detroit’s. Cleveland, in contrast, sent out 44,000 shutoff notices last year and has placed liens on the homes of nearly 8,000 past-due customers in the last three years, according to an investigation by a Cleveland television station, WEWS-TV 5.
Chicago water expert Eric Rothstein said it’s unfair to compare Detroit to other communities because all are unique. Detroit “has come a long way” and its assistance programs have the potential to be a model for other cities, said Rothstein, who chaired a panel convened by Brown to study long-term solutions to Detroit’s water problems.
What is fair?
Back on the east side, Camay Larry said her life has come a long way as well. In the wrong direction.
She bought the house after becoming pregnant. A former waitress, she’s now unemployed. The $3,500 she paid for the house has already multiplied.
Besides the water bill, the two-story, well-kept brick home near Interstate 94 came with a tax bill for $3,000 that she is paying off at a rate of $158 per month. Larry delayed moving in until her son was born so she could make repairs she estimated cost $4,500.
All of last year, she said, she never received a water bill. Larry acknowledged that about $800 of the past-due bill is hers from last year, but doesn’t believe she should pay for debt racked up by previous occupants.
“I don’t have the money,” she said. “Am I going to have to sell my house to pay my water bill? And then what? Live on the street?”
After she was disconnected, Larry said she showed water clerks a quit claim deed that she contends proves she didn’t use the water.
It didn’t matter. The debt came with the house, Brown said, who added that failing to pay passes the arrearage along to all other customers. He urged Camay to get assistance and start a repayment plan.
“It’s going to get paid,” Brown said. “And it is going to get paid by the vast majority of customers who pay their bills on time, even (those) living below the poverty line. Is that fair to them (when others don’t pay)?”
Larry says she spends her days collecting water from neighbors, staying strong for her son and worrying that she’s become a bad mother.
She bought him eight goldfish on his first birthday.
She said all but two have died because she hasn’t changed the tank in weeks.
That would require water she says she can’t afford to waste.
Are Detroit water shutoffs and illnesses related?
Working with the group We the People of Detroit, researchers compared block-level water disconnection data in Detroit from January 2015 to February 2016 with Henry Ford Hospital admissions and diagnoses for gastrointestinal and soft tissue infections during that time.
The records showed that patients who lived on a block with shutoffs were 1.55 times more likely to have a water-associated illness, even when other socioeconomic situations are taken into consideration.
Water activists used the findings to renew their call for a moratorium on the shutoffs, and planned to begin a robo-call campaign this week bringing the issue to the attention of city residents.
“Common sense tells us that you can’t deprive tens of thousands of people of water and not suffer serious public health consequences,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick of the We the People group.
In a press statement issued by We the People, the study’s lead author, Alexander Plum, said the study shows that “depriving people of access to water has health consequences.”
Bridge attempted to interview Plum, who is the Global Health Initiative’s senior program coordinator. Henry Ford officials responded by saying he was out of the country last week and issuing a statement saying the study “found only a general correlation” and “can’t be used to determine any direct cause and effect.”
The City of Detroit has received the results of the study. Health department officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Detroit water shutoffs rise in 2016
City officials vowed that the number of homes having their water shut off for nonpayment would decline after Detroit first launched an aggressive campaign to collect on delinquent accounts in 2014. In fact, Bridge found, the number of home water shutoffs increased last year:
- 2014 – 33,000
- 2015 – 23,200
- 2016 – 27,552
Detroit has several assistance programs for residents who have trouble paying water bills:
WRAP Program: Offers up to $1,000 per household per year, home energy audits, housing repairs and other programs. Help also is available to suburban residents. It is limited to low-income families. More information here or (313) 386-9727.
10/30/50 Plan: Delinquent Detroit customers can get water service reconnected if they pay 10 percent of their bill. If they miss one payment, a 30 percent down payment is required. If they miss another payment, they must pay 50 percent of the bill. More information at here or (313) 267-8000.
Relief groups: Nonprofits deliver bottled water to those without service and/or help with deposits to reconnect service. More information atdetroitwaterbrigade.org,wethepeopleofdetroit.com anddetroitwaterproject.org.