City officials in Detroit on Tuesday announced an extension of water shutoff protections through 2022 and said they want to develop a plan to permanently stop shutoffs in the future.
Detroit’s COVID-19 Water Restart Plan, launched in March for people who are unable to make payments during the pandemic, was set to expire at the end of this month. Through state, federal, private and local funds that moratorium will now run through at least 2022.
“The shutoff moratorium issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ends in 23 days, but not here in Detroit,” Gary Brown, director of the city’s water and sewerage department, said during a news conference Tuesday. “We are continuing the moratorium through 2022, while we work on a permanent water affordability solution at the state and federal level.”
Detroit water activists have long advocated for a comprehensive water affordability plan that would stop water shutoffs.
“The devil will be in the details, in terms of a real commitment to a timeline and a budget line,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People Detroit, about Tuesday’s announcement. “…We know that good public health is tied to access to clean, safe and affordable water.”
Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and People’s Water Board Coalition, said the announcement was unexpected.
“We’re very pleasantly surprised but still troubled by the way that they continue to conflate assistance with affordability, and have not addressed unaffordable rates,” she said via email. “…What happens before 2022 is critical to how post-2022 will pan out and if we’re to believe the goals they stated.”
Brown said that Detroit’s announcement on Tuesday isn’t an amnesty on payments, meaning that residential households will continue to rack up their full water and sewer changes based on monthly usage and drainage charges, using current rates.
Two city programs, the Water Residential Assistance Program and the 10/30/50 Plan, help residents make payments. Combined there are currently 8,000 residential accounts enrolled in either WRAP or the 10/30/50 Plan, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, public affairs deputy director with the city’s water and sewage department.
The city has recruited Detroit’s former public health director, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, to help identify funding to prevent water shutoffs in the future and to work with other cities on strategies to make water affordable.
El-Sayed said during Tuesday’s news conference extending the moratorium through 2022 allows time to develop a long-term solution, “so that no longer will we ever have a circumstance in the city where somebody goes without the basic need, the basic lifeblood that is water.”
This is a monumental day for Detroiters that we never would have arrived at without the tireless leadership of water warriors like Monica Lewis-Patrick, Lila Cabbil, and Maureen Taylor.
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) December 8, 2020
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan cited as a potential model the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that helps with energy bills.
“There has been no federal assistance for water and I think there’s growing bipartisan support for that. And we’re going to take the next two years and build a coalition so that, while we’ve got two years breathing room where we’re going to be OK in having the moratorium on shutoffs, we’re committed to finding a permanent solution so that this problem does not come back,” said Duggan, who noted that Sen. Gary Peters is working to expand utility support to water services.
By the end of December, the city expects to spend $22 million with $15 million for bill credits to nearly 50,000 Detroit households, Brown said. The water department has 227,000 active residential accounts. He said Detroit’s Water Restart Plan restored water for nearly 1,300 occupied homes since March.
The Michigan Supreme Court in October struck down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s use of a 1945 law to issue emergency orders, including a moratorium on water shutoffs. More than 317,000 households throughout Michigan are estimated to be behind on their water bills and could face water shutoffs, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, People’s Water Board Coalition and other advocacy groups.
“This is good news for Detroiters across the city. … I urge our leaders in Lansing to follow suit and pass Senate Bill 241, the Water Shutoff Protection Act, to protect Michiganders across the state from water shutoffs during the pandemic,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a news release.
Between 2014 and 2019, the city disconnected water service to 141,000 Detroiters, according to Bridge Michigan. Organizations including We the People of Detroit, Hydrate Detroit, the Detroit Water Brigade and others have delivered emergency water to residents whose water service had been turned off, helped Detroiters get assistance, raised money to restore service.
In 2014, the United Nations called the shut offs a “violation of the most basic human rights of those residents.” In 2017, a study by the Henry Ford Global Health Initiative and We the People of Detroit found that people who lived on blocks where shutoffs occurred were at a higher risk of contracting water-related illnesses.
For advocates like Lewis-Patrick, the city’s decision to extend the shutoff moratorium and seek a long-term solution is a step in the right direction but the fight against shut offs and for water affordability is not over.
“For us, it’s going to be about holding the line of accountability and transparency on the mayor, in terms of how he’s moving and responding. … The people deserve this win,” she said.
Detroiters who need more information about the COVID-19 Restart Plan can contact the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at 313-386-9727 or visit www.waynemetro.org.