Hundreds of Detroiters enrolled in the city’s new water affordability program fell behind on their lowered water bills.
Of the more than 15,000 households in the Lifeline Plan, 2,183 missed payments, according to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). Those households are still part of the program and the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency — which is administering the program — will provide more services to help people catch up.
The program, which launched last summer, offers residents fixed monthly rates from $18 to $56, based on a household’s income and water use. Most of the households that did not pay their Lifeline bill through last month are in the $18-a-month tier.
Meanwhile, the water department is slated to propose changes to the Lifeline Plan on Wednesday to the Board of Water Commissioners, including accommodations for larger families to be able to use more water and rules around nonpayment.
Starting this week, households with high past-due balances may see a postcard in their mailbox reminding customers to pay their water bills or enroll in an assistance program. A pandemic-era moratorium on water shutoffs for some customers in Detroit lifted at the end of 2022 and residential shutoffs are expected to resume for households that have arrears, have not signed up for an assistance or payment plan and are not low-income. There is no date set for when shutoffs will begin, DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh said in an email last week.
Lifeline, by the numbers, so far
More than 2,300 households have a pending Lifeline application and it can take three to four weeks to get enrolled, according to DWSD. As long as families apply for the program or the 10/30/50 plan — where they can make a down payment and pay off delinquent balances in installments — they are spared from a water shut off.
Most of the households that did not pay their Lifeline bill have not made payments in the last three to four months. Their balances, Peckinpaugh said, are low because when they got on the plan their previous arrears were wiped away. If a household enrolled in December and missed their $18 payments, their balance would be $72 which, he said, is less than the $79.59 monthly bill a family outside of the program sees on average.
The total arrears for those in the program who missed payments is approximately $100,000. More than 10,000 have been paying their Lifeline bill, Peckinpaugh said.
Why families are behind
Shama Mounzer, executive director of empowerment and integration services at Wayne Metro, said people tend to fall behind three months into the program.
“Every program that (requires) clients to make consistent monthly payments, you have to expect a percentage of clients who are unable to make their payment on time,” she said.
She pointed to the rising cost of living, lingering economic effects of the pandemic and job losses making it more challenging to pay lowered water bills. Some may forget to make the payments. People who have very low incomes are choosing which bills to pay, she said, and so their water payments might fall through the cracks.
What happens next
Wayne Metro plans to work with program participants to get them caught up. That includes reaching out to them — through text messages, emails and phone calls — before their bill is due with budgeting help, financial coaching and identifying ways to conserve water. Wayne Metro also is using federal funds distributed by the state to help clients pay missed payments.
A hardship application will ask customers to identify the challenges they face that are preventing them from making payments.
“We’re not in a hurry to shut anybody off,” said DWSD Director Gary Brown, referring to those in the Lifeline Plan who are behind on payments.
DWSD is expected to propose changes to the program on Wednesday. Among them, according to a memo provided to commissioners last month:
- Water use would be based on household size. Currently, Lifeline caps water usage to 4,500 gallons a month and any extra usage adds on more charges. Water advocates had raised concerns about the threshold for water use and how it would impact larger families. For instance, with the recommendation, a family of five would have a 6,750 gallon per month water use limit to stay within their fixed rate and a household with 11 people or more could use up to 13,500 gallons.
- Customers who fall behind and are 90 days late on their payments while in the program can be unenrolled. Wayne Metro would let those customers know when they missed a payment and reach out to them to offer wraparound services and evaluate for a hardship exemption.
“Usually, if they’re facing challenges making one payment, they are definitely facing challenges making other payments … so our goal will be to work with them,” Mounzer said.
Funding for the program
Since the Lifeline Plan began in August, the water department spent $11.4 million on the program. DWSD has an additional $3.6 million budget for the program and expects another $5 million in July from the Great Lakes Water Authority, Brown said.
“When we started the program, we anticipated 20,000 residential Detroit customers being in the program. We’re going to slide that up to 25,000. We think the dollars are there,” Brown said.
Brown said the water department plans to request a large portion of the $25 million in the state’s supplemental spending bill for water shutoff prevention and he’s pushed lawmakers who represent Detroit to advocate for more money to go toward the program in the 2024 state budget.
How to get help
Contact the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at 313-386-9727 or go to www.waynemetro.org/dwsdlifeline.
Detroit Documenters, a program that pays and trains Detroiters to attend local public meetings, contributed to this report.