This post was originally published on Michigan Chronicle

By Rasha Almulaiki

Eight years ago, water advocates took to the streets to protest water shut offs, and now the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) opened applications on July 1 for the first citywide comprehensive water affordability plan, Detroit Lifeline. The five-year plan for an income-based program is intended to help thousands of low-income Detroiters access water at a fixed monthly rate as low as $18 a month.

“I challenge anyone to go somewhere and try to find a low income-based water plan,” said Gary Brown, director of DWSD, “One point eight percent of average [Detroit] household income will be the water bill. This is what the community has been asking for and impacts 80 percent of our Detroiters.”

The plan is implemented in partnership with the community service organization, Wayne Metro.

As of July 5, DWSD reported Wayne Metro received more than 1,600 calls inquiring about the Lifeline Plan. As of right now, 215 residents have begun the enrollment process. This does not include the 2,500 households currently enrolled in the city’s Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) who will be auto enrolled in the Lifeline Plan.

Funding for this pilot program is made possible through an influx of temporary federal funding for a Low-Income Household Water Affordability Program (LIWHAP), an increase in funding for WRAP and implemented upgrades to DWSD’s billing system.

What are the eligibility benefits Detroiters can expect from the Lifeline Plan?

Detroiters can sign up to receive Lifeline benefits based on an income eligibility assessment in three-tiered subsidized rates:

  • If you receive SNAP/FAP benefits you pay $18 a month for water, sewer and drainage services.
  • If you are a low-income household (non-SNAP/FAP) you pay $43 a month for your total DWSD bill.
  • If you are a moderate-income household (non-SNAP/FAP) you pay $56 a month for your total DWSD bill.

If a household goes over 4,500 gallons of water, then they will be charged for the additional usage but will not be removed from the plan, said Brown.

The city of Detroit says income-eligible households include:

The 2,500 households currently enrolled in WRAP will be immediately auto-enrolled in the new plan.

The 19,000-plus households who were previously in WRAP can immediately qualify and will be contacted by Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency.

Low-income-eligible households.

Households receiving SNAP/FAP benefits.

Brown said the plan was developed after several studies were conducted assessing Detroit’s water affordability, including a cost-of-service study.

Also, a survey of program by ARPRISE Incorporated was influential in analyzing Detroit’s water assistance programs amid seven other national areas including the District of Columbia, Atlanta, California, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh and Seattle.

“We want to be better advocates for our community,” said Brown, “And we hope Detroit will serve as a national model for affordable water access.”

Detroit’s water affordability crisis recent history

In 2014, under the control of the emergency city manager, DWSD shut off water to more than 30,000 homes, impacting over 100,000 people. In response, community advocacy groups, such as We the People of Detroit, have worked to provide clean water to thousands of residents.

“The city had a financial problem,” said Tiana Starks, communications director at We the People Detroit (WTPD) chapter. “One of the ways they tried to recoup this money is by penalizing water usage and so there were mass shut offs at that time.”

Residents with mounting water bill debt continued to face shut offs. During the pandemic, the lack of water access negatively impacted health care standards and concerns over child welfare.

Last March, Governor Whitmer issued a temporary statewide ban on water shut offs, affecting 800,000 statewide residents. DWSD expects to sign up 100 percent of eligible residents ahead of the moratorium which ends this December.

“There is a lot of fear,” said Starks. “There is fear that their children will be taken from them if they don’t have water. So, there’s fear and shame and they don’t know where to turn. And so, people call us as a trusted community organization. We partnered with food pantries, like Brightmoor [Connection Food Pantry], for emergency water deliveries to more than 1,000 family homes.”

Last year, the University of Michigan Water Center, a program of the Graham Sustainability Institute, released a report on the growing statewide water affordability crisis. Among the findings, the assessment found, “In the Midwest, water bills for households in the lowest 20th percentile of income have risen 433 percent on average since 1986, while household income for these residents has only risen 241 percent.”

The study also warned, “When a household is unable to pay its water bills (i.e., the water is shut off), there are impacts to the household (damage to health, family and dignity), the water utility (operational costs and unreliable revenue) and society (public health and collective well-being.)”

One of the public health risks revealed a correlation to higher Covid mortality rates. A team at Cornell University “found that states with shutoff moratoria between April and December 2020 had significantly reduced growth rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths than did those without them, estimating that as many as 480,000+ infections and over 9,000 deaths nationwide would have been avoided with a national moratorium on water shutoffs.”

We the People (Detroit chapter) is one of several community nonprofits and organizations that are part of a coalition led by DWSD to educate Detroiters on the Lifeline plan and help them enroll.

DWSD, in partnership with Wayne Metro, will invest $10million per year for the next five years to help low-income residential customers repair leaks in their homes and keep their water usage to 4,500 gallons per month to maintain the DWSD Lifeline rate. This water usage rate is based on the estimate of the average Detroit household (three people) uses between 2,300 and 3,000 gallons per month.

Water advocates “very much concerned” about lack of community engagement in Lifeline planning

Community advocates express concern over Lifeline Plan’s lack of immediate transparency and active engagement with grassroots organizations that have been calling for water rights for years.

“This program we’re very much concerned about because of the rollout of the program,” said Cecily McClellan, WTPD co-founder and water hotline coordinator. “We became aware of the program in the middle of May when Wayne Metro held a zoom meeting to share DWSD’s plan on Detroit Lifeline program. But they didn’t have a lot of information. And it wasn’t until June 17, like everyone else, when we had the opportunity to see a sketch of the program.”

McClellan said although WTPD agrees with the city’s conservation of water rationing, family size and affordability are deciding factors on responsible income-based billings.

“We’ve heard them say that over 80 percent of families of three use 6 CCFs,” said McClellan. “What about a family of four or five? Well, we would like to see data that supports that — it was not forthcoming.”

The CCF is often listed on a water bill and stands for “centum cubic feet,” which means 100 cubic feet or 748 gallons of water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

WTDP said although the city is promoting a plan that says it would not be more than 1.8 percent of monthly income, which is better than the EPA’s recommended guidelines of 3 percent, the plan’s messaging is misleading since the tiered system allows for a person to pay a higher percentage depending on where they fall on the spectrum.

“We’ve been in this game for a long time,” said McClellan. “We need to know this is a true effort in the right direction to provide water assistance so everybody in the city can survive and thrive and have safe, clean, affordable water.”

Residents can contact Wayne Metro today to ask about Lifeline Plan enrollment or call (313) 386-3727.