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Detroit community advocates argue that the city's new plan to address water affordability falls short of residents' needs and demanded transparency. (Nushrat Rahman)

Longtime community advocates say the city of Detroit’s new plan to address water affordability and shutoffs falls short of Detroiters’ needs and called for more transparency around the program. 

The water activists, including grassroots group We The People of Detroit, were joined Thursday by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, to share their concerns about the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Lifeline Plan — a tiered water affordability program based on income and usage — and recommendations for community engagement. 

Advocates argue that the usage model is “water rationing” and the tiers may leave out some Detroiters who fall outside the eligibility requirements. They also say they weren’t given full details about the plan prior to the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners’ vote on it last week.

“The implementation of this program — it leaves quite a bit to be desired,” Cecily McClellan, director of Water Works for We The People of Detroit, said during a Thursday news conference. 

In a statement Thursday, DWSD Director Gary Brown said the water department has provided all the documents, including rate and affordability studies, with water advocates and is continuing to engage with community leaders. 

“DWSD is currently drafting the working policy for the plan that will be shared with community leaders and water advocates, as well as posted on the website,” he said. 

Detroit is full of “water warriors” who have been on the front lines, said Tlaib, who is running in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary for the  12th Congressional District seat. 

“While it’s welcome news that the city has decided to move forward with an affordability plan, the details are important. Like they say — the devil is in the details,” she said. 

She said questions remain around long-term funding, whether thresholds for water use are reasonable and whether rates will go up for those outside of the Lifeline Plan. 

“The table was there, the groups were waiting. They just needed to be engaged,” Tlaib said. 

Under the Lifeline Plan, eligible Detroiters can pay a fixed monthly rate based on their income and usage.

Brown said last week that there are more than 100,000 households in the city limits — 40% of the 250,000 customers — who are eligible for food assistance and because of that will fall under the first tier of the plan, capping monthly payments at $18 a month for water, sewer and drainage services. 

The second tier, defined as “low-income,” or an average household making $28,652, is capped at $43 a month. Families falling under the third level, referred to as “moderate income” or those making an average of $37,127, will max at $56 a month as long as they’re not receiving food assistance benefits.

Customers can use up to 4,500 gallons of water per month to stay within the rate. Go above that and it costs more. City officials have said the average three-person Detroit household uses between 2,300 to 3,000 gallons of water a month. 

Advocates questioned what happens when families go over that threshold and additional rates. 

“Forty-five hundred gallons of water is not going very far. That’s water rationing of  people,” said the Rev. Roslyn Bouier, executive director of the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry and a pastor whose northwest Detroit community includes people living in multifamily homes, often well below the poverty line. 

Enrolled households who go over the 4,500 gallons will be able to tap into programs through the nonprofit Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency to provide plumbing audits and repairs to reduce water consumption, Brown said.

The state is expected to approve $10 million for the next five years, to help low-income residential customers repair leaks, he said. 

“Households that despite plumbing repairs and all other efforts still exceed 4,500 gallons, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” Brown said. 

Not having access to water is dire, said Sonja Bonnett, of the Detroit Justice Center and Coalition for Property Tax Justice. 

“Have you ever had to go to your neighbor, knock on their door and say listen, I can throw you a couple bucks next week if you let me run your hose through my window, so we can wash dishes, or so we can heat it up to take a bath?” Bonnett said.  

Advocates argue that a funding strategy for the Lifeline Plan has not been made public. 

DWSD’s plan is funded by regional, state and federal dollars but Brown has acknowledged that a permanent funding source is not yet in place. His department has enough dollars for a year or two, he said last week.

He said Thursday DWSD is continuing to lobby state and federal agencies to create a permanently funded Low Income Household Water Assistance Program.

On Thursday, advocates outlined their requests: They want the water department to make operations and spending documents about the Lifeline Plan public, establish an elected ombudsman “as an internal mechanism to ensure oversight and accountability,” and have a regular engagement schedule with the community and take feedback. 

DWSD has said it is hosting a 60-day “community engagement” effort to garner responses to the plan for any amendments and is going door to door to let residents know about payment options.

Detroiters can make comments via a form at www.detroitmi.gov/water. 

Brown said his department is preparing to schedule 10 community events starting July 19. Those will include information about the Lifeline Plan, pre-enrolling qualifying households and getting feedback “on potential amendments to the Lifeline Plan that will be presented to the Board of Water Commissioners by the end of the calendar year.” 

“Engagement has to come from the ground up — the actual people that are experiencing water shutoffs,” said Theresa Landrum, a southwest Detroit resident and environmental justice activist.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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