Written by 8:40 am Commentary, The Work, Water news

On a Water Moratorium: Michigan is Not Out of the Woods Yet

What Michigan’s water shut-off moratorium really means for the future of water.

Over the weekend, Michigan’s governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order enacting a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs to fight the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). This order directs water to be restored to every household previously shut-off for the inability to pay. A $2MM fund is also available to assist communities in complying with the order.

People are right to celebrate this as a victory, but not for the most obvious reasons. We can celebrate it as proof government can do the right thing when it chooses. During this pandemic, governments have suspended evictions, released people from jail, re-opened health insurance exchanges, and the list goes on.

But, my concern is that this order is temporary. It is not the permanent moratorium activists have called for in Michigan for years. The order says as much, so it shouldn’t be celebrated as if it is. So, the question becomes what happens to Michiganders when this situation is no longer an emergency?

They’ve not defined how they determine a state of emergency no longer exists other than quoting [state law]: “The state of emergency is terminated when emergency conditions no longer exist and appropriate programs have been implemented to recover from any effects of the emergency conditions…” Not helpful.

Of course, no one knows exactly when any of this will end. But, it’s worth asking: are they judging, perhaps, by the number of new infections in Michigan, surrounding states, and/or nationally?

Either way, if history is any guide, as soon as this state of emergency is over and the moratorium is lifted, Detroit will go back to aggressive collection through shut-offs. They did in 2014 at the end of their own self-imposed moratorium. The mayor of Detroit thinks long-term moratoriums encourage people to not pay and doesn’t support them.

The order neither forgives outstanding balances nor shields anybody from having to pay what they owe. This is even when they’ve shown they can’t pay. This leaves the door wide open for collections and thus, continued shut-offs at some later date. We have people applying for help now specifically to avoid this. So knowing the metric for declaring the end of the emergency helps people orient themselves around how much time they have to handle outstanding balances.

Knowing how people will be expected to handle outstanding balances is important. Michigan received nearly 130,000 unemployment claims last week. They normally get about 5,000 claims a week. So, even after the last COVID-19 patient heals, Michigan will still be left with the economic carnage the disease leaves behind. Unemployment benefits are only a fraction of what people made before. If people were already struggling with bills they couldn’t afford, this moment is an opportunity to do something more.

Advocates have called for an income-based water affordability rate for Detroit for almost 20 years. The Detroit City Council approved this in 2005. The Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD) declined to implement it. Now is the time to revisit that idea. Now is also the time to give serious consideration to how the state can help every city that would benefit from such a program. Philadelphia did it.

The order comes with a $2MM fund. But, it’s not for providing direct assistance to help people pay outstanding balances. Instead, it is for reimbursing communities for expenses related to following the order. 

Michigan is a big state, though. Our donors pay water bills in almost 30 of its cities. We were once asked by a city to contribute to the $5,000+ estimated cost of replacing the main sewer line for a home. We did not. But, this showed how expensive water-related repairs can get. The order only provides up to $5,000 per household needing repairs. Depending on how many homes might need repairs, $2MM could go very quickly.

Another concern I have is speed of execution. Three weeks ago, the state of Michigan and Detroit announced a moratorium like this in Detroit. People were promised their water would be turned on when they asked for help.

As recently as a week ago, though, only one out of three of those households have their water back on. Detroit admitted to being plagued by technology problems, a shortage of contractors, and mechanical problems with running water through pipes that hadn’t been carrying it (sometimes for years). 

I hope other communities can get people’s water restored more quickly. Otherwise, this ends up being a thing that looks great for the moment, but once the moment passes, because the ramp-up was so slow, it doesn’t actually help.

Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D). Pulled from Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Governor Whitmer declined the ACLU of Michigan’s request to issue a moratorium a month ago. If that is any indication, she didn’t actually want to do this.

That shouldn’t have been surprising. The issue of water affordability got two paragraphs out of the 14 pages in Governor Whitmer’s 2018 Get It Done: Clean Water for Michigan campaign platform docs. However, after she was elected, she did very little around it until this pandemic forced her hand.

So, yes, I am happy Governor Whitmer ordered a temporary moratorium on water shutoffs in Michigan. But, let’s not celebrate this as if it’s a permanent answer to a problem people have fought for years. Let’s continue to do the work to make sure this isn’t just temporary.

Extra credit: many good reasons to stop shut-offs existed before anyone anywhere died from COVID-19. These reasons animate our work:

  1. You can lose your kids if your water is shut-off. Our donors have helped numerous families in this situation. The US Department of Health & Human Services defines a home lacking basic utilities as unfit for habitation. A child living in such a home is considered neglected. This subjects them to possible placement in foster care. It is much more efficient and economical, however, to provide equitable access to water than to put a child in foster care. Data also shows Black children are more likely to be removed from homes than other children. They are more likely to remain in foster care longer and less likely to be returned to their families. In light of all this, it is infinitely less damaging to the long-term emotional, physical, and psychological well-being of children to make water affordable.
  2. You can lose your home if you don’t pay your water bill. In many cities, an unpaid water bill is added to its property taxes. If those are not paid within a certain time period, tax sale foreclosure is possible. The process has more pieces than I’m explaining here, but the result can be eviction from what may be a paid-off house. Our donors saved at least 40 families from this fate.
  3. As COVID-19 so powerfully demonstrates, water is essential to protecting the public health. You can’t tell people to wash their hands when vast swathes of the population literally cannot. 

As in nearly everything I write these days, I’ll say the United States federal government must do more to support states in providing equitable access to running water in every home. Water is a matter of public health and national security. The United States can no longer afford to fail to invest in its water infrastructure.

The American Water Works Association estimates we would need over $1T over the next 25 years to fix the United States’ water infrastructure.

Clearly, we have the money.

If you have extra money, you can donate toward someone’s water bill. Donors from all over the world have helped nearly 1,200 families in Michigan and Maryland this way since 2014. Your donation is fully tax-deductible.

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