flooding on the street
Photos outside the medical house of the community-based organization Auntie Na’s Village in Detroit. Owner and executive director Sonia Brown said persistent flooding has been costly and it has hampered services. (Photo by Sonia Brown)

Big-ticket repairs have put the City of Detroit a year behind on a program designed to protect homeowners in 11 neighborhoods from flooding.

To date, a little more than half of the homes enrolled in the city’s Basement Backup Protection Program scheduled to be outfitted with up to $6,000 apiece in flooding controls by summer 2022 have been completed, mainly due to damaged private sewer lines that need repairs before work can begin. Private sewer and service line repair is expensive, with costs that can run up to $25,000 per house – and city officials say the earliest that public funding could be available to replace those lines is next fall.

“The Basement Backup Protection Program funding does not have sufficient dollars and is not designed for sewer repairs,” Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, told BridgeDetroit. “A collapsed sewer line can cost $15,000 to $25,000 to replace the pipe per house.”

The first phase of the city’s $15 million program kicked off in May, providing eligible homeowners in the Aviation Sub and Victoria Park neighborhoods with basement flooding prevention controls, like backwater valves. Originally, the DWSD estimated Phase 1 would be complete by the summer and Phase 2, which includes nine other neighborhoods, would start in July. A 10% deposit initially required from homeowners was a barrier to completion, but the city later changed the requirement to a flat fee of $100 per house. Now, city officials say the cost of replacing damaged private sewer and service lines are holding up progress. The city recently submitted a plan to use $40 million in federal disaster recovery funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help residents repair and replace the lines.

Detroit’s Aviation Sub after devastating summer flooding in 2021. (Photos by Dan Austin)

Peckinpaugh said 40% of households in Phase 1 had collapsed or broken private sewer service lines.

“In this case, the backwater valve would not work until the sewer line is repaired or replaced,” Peckinpaugh wrote in an email. “Many of these homes are experiencing private sewer backups even on dry days due to house infrastructure that has outlived its useful life.”

To date, 155 homes out of 303 accepted for Phase 1 have been completed. For the remaining residents in need of private sewer line fixes, federal funding may be available late next year.

“The earliest that funding will be available to begin the replacement work is September 2023, pending HUD approval,” Peckinpaugh added. “The homeowner will need to be low-income, per the federal rules, to apply for that program. We will start with the houses in the Basement Backup Protection Program that need sewer replacement.”

Under the guidelines, low-income is defined as at, or below 150% of the federal poverty line, or $34,545 for a three-person household.

Beyond the potential federal funds, there are no other public funding sources for Detroit homeowners to repair their private sewer lines, according to DWSD.

Because many households accepted into the program have been unable to get those repairs done, the city has money from Phase 1 that has been used to complete 25 homes in Jefferson Chalmers, a neighborhood technically covered under Phase 2. 

“That neighborhood has been impacted by repeated flooding which is why we moved there first,” Peckinpaugh said.

Flooding has been a chronic issue for Jefferson Chalmers resident Loretta Rodgers, who is awaiting flood prevention help from the city for her home.

In 2016, her basement flooded with three feet of water. In 2021, it happened again, this time with the water level reaching five feet, destroying her washer and dryer, upright freezer, and thousands of dollars in materials for her boutique clothing business, she said.

Rodgers filed an insurance claim on a policy she added to her homeowners insurance in 2016, and learned that the claim would only pay up to $5,000. It left her thousands of dollars in the hole. So she said she collected her check and canceled the policy, leaving her vulnerable to more costs from any future flooding. 

Earlier this year, Rodgers applied for the Basement Backup Protection Program and had an inspection done by the city in November. She is scheduled to get repairs next spring.

“People had living quarters in their basements, like me, you know, personal things, clothing, my winter clothes, all of my small appliances that was down there, my sewing machines – all of that was all in the basement and they’re telling us now, don’t use your basement,” said Rodgers.

“It is [the city’s] fault,” she said, “and right now I see that they are trying to repair some of the damages…. God’s will we won’t have that problem anymore.”

 Detroit’s Aviation Sub after devastating summer flooding in 2021. (Photos by Dan Austin)

William Davis, an Aviation Sub resident and former member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, said he had a backwater valve installed through the program. After a 60-day delay following the initial inspection, it was a fairly smooth process, Davis said.

The fact that over a hundred residents aren’t able to move forward yet due to the condition of their sewer lines comes as no surprise to Davis, a DWSD retiree.

“I used to work for the water department, in fact, at the wastewater treatment plant and some of the lines are very old. And especially, depending on if you have trees in your backyard, some of them can intercept the line and might be a problem.” 

Davis said he may not have encountered the same roadblocks as other residents because his home was built in the 1970s, while most other homes in his neighborhood were built in the 30’s and 40’s. 

Davis said that funding should be made available to do all of the work necessary. 

“I would have thought that there’d be more than enough funding to do everything at one time because they’ve had a tremendous amount of money coming to the city and also coming to the state to do a number of projects,” he said. “Water lines and backflow prevention and all of that should have been part of what’s allocated for.”

Beulah Walker, a long-time water rights advocate and chief coordinator with the grassroots aid group Hydrate Detroit, argues that the problems residents are experiencing with their private sewer lines is the result of DWSD’s negligence and failure to maintain the public sewer lines.

Walker pointed to Auntie Na’s Village, an organization that offers community support such as free nutritious meals and after-school care, which she said has paid thousands of dollars on more than one occasion to replace its sewer lines only to have them collapse again.

“In my opinion, it’s old-fashioned land grabbing. You flood them out, you tax them out – that’s how you get the land,” Walker contends. “That’s just how I feel about it.”

Sonia Brown, founder and executive director of Auntie Na’s Village, told Bridge Detroit that the community organization has had persistent problems with the city’s sewer line, which has damaged the private lateral sewer lines. Auntie Na’s paid to have work done in 2016 and again after the June 2021 floods. Today, the basement drain has to be snaked every other day, she said.

Two homes owned by Brown’s Nardin Park organization have had lateral sewer line repairs and another has had problems with basement flooding, despite having substantial work done. The village offered medical resources until the building where they were housed had to discontinue services due to persistent sewer issues, she said. 

“Why am I paying (fees) for sewage that should be going out of my house,” she said, “if it’s still in my home?”

The problems are chronic, she said, and they extend beyond homes owned by Auntie Na’s Village. Brown wants federal dollars to go toward better serving residents and she wants the city to grant fewer tax breaks for big corporations in favor of directing more funding toward helping homeowners. 

“Those that need it the most are the ones that are getting it the least,” said Brown, whose family has operated in the City of Detroit for generations, starting with Brown’s grandparents. “How many more of us long-time residents are you gonna run away because you’re wronging us and our children? That’s a generational issue right there.”

For the city’s service lines, DWSD Director Gary Brown has estimated that an overhaul of Detroit’s deteriorating water infrastructure, including a vast network of about 100,000 lead service lines, could cost upwards of $850 million.

DWSD officials said this fall that the department plans to accelerate the removal of lead service lines over the next three years with a new investment of $100 million, including $75 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, contributions from the Environmental Protection Agency as well as state funds.

The water department estimates that Phase 2 of the Basement Backup Protection Program will now begin in spring 2023. DWSD has received 2,030 applications for the second phase, which covers nine neighborhoods: Barton-McFarland, Chadsey Condon, Garden View, Warrendale, Cornerstone Village, East English Village, Jefferson Chalmers, Morningside, and Moross-Morang.

“In 2023, we will determine if we will go one neighborhood at a time or assign each neighborhood a set of plumbers,” Peckinpaugh said.

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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5 Comments

  1. I am a retired single woman home owner in the Core City area but I don’t qualify for alot of these programs. These type of repairs or preventive maintenance is extremely expensive. Anyone out there know who I can contact. My home was built in 1900 and I have tried to maintain it the best I can. It has new windows, roof, foundation and chimney re-tuck pointed, and the list goes on and on.

  2. Thanks! There always seems to be funding for billionaires’ projects, greenways; etc, but never seem to be enough funding for real quality of life issues for the majority Detroit. This administration belongs in the hall of Shame!

  3. This needs to be done for all neighborhoods, not just certain ones. My neighborhood stops 2 blocks short of Moross-Morang and I am experiencing my basement backing up. I don’t qualify for help. SMH

  4. The basement backup preventers will certainly help those of us who can get them. Though, at the end of the day, we will continue to have flooding issues in our streets and in many of our homes until we address the core causes of the flooding.

    As I see it there are four main reasons for the flooding:
    1. Aging infrastructure
    2. Over-paved landscape
    3. Sprawling metro region
    4. Increased rainfall

    They’re all interconnected too. We can’t solve our flooding until we’re willing to scale back how much impervious pavement surfaces we set up for car-only infrastructure in the region. We can’t afford to replace our aging infrastructure due to the sprawl and declining tax base in the city. The sprawl is encouraged due to the our development being car oriented which makes us dependent on cars and the over-paved surfaces. Lastly, we have the increased rainfall which overwhelms our system because we sprawled out and have carbon intensive lifestyles dependent on auto ownership.

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