Written by 7:19 pm Commentary, Public policy, The Work

On Five Years of Paying Detroit’s Water Bills

We’ve become experts on the water affordability crisis in Detroit. We explain why people need help with their water bills and the broader, national problem.

When I first started this work five years ago, I could not know the depths of destitution to which a family would be dragged by an unaffordable water bill.

Honestly, I didn’t even know unaffordable water bills were a thing.

Oh, I would learn, though.

I would meet the single mother of three who skipped doses of her heart medication to save money for her water bill. Later, I would hear of families torn apart by water bills — the result of depraved and reckless public policy that sends kids into foster care simply because and only because their parents are poor. I would meet the 87-year-old woman who suffered a stroke, and after getting care, sat in her house for months with no water.

This is what passes for acceptable policy in far too many cities in the United States including and especially Detroit. Lately, Detroit’s story has moved from one of the burned-out buildings, corruption, and bankruptcy to one of “recovery” and “revitalization”. But, we serve people absent from that story. They are not people who can live in overpriced apartments overlooking the redundant $200MM streetcar known as the Q Line in downtown Detroit.*** Instead, they are people stuck literally and figuratively on the margins. Mostly Black and female, so on the margins of society. Poor, so on the margins of the city — away from the corridors of growth and the targets of revitalization grants — and again, society.

Over the last few weeks, my team and I have been in contact with the Detroit Department of Health. They’re now tasked with case management and understanding why people cannot afford water bills. We happily talk to them, but the cause isn’t opaque quantum physics. It’s poverty.

Over the last five years, these remain the most common problems we’ve seen, with many of these being the direct cause of poverty:

  • Shortened hours, job loss, or long-term unemployment
  • Medical emergency or death in the family
  • Diagnosis of a chronic illness such as cancer for the family breadwinner
  • Divorce and the havoc it wreaks on one’s finances (especially a woman’s finances in heterosexual marriages — a situation known as “divorce inequality”)
  • Old housing stock and sudden plumbing problems
  • Disability and inadequate income
  • Old age (and its accompanying health problems) and inadequate care and oversight

Water is a human right. In helping 1,018 families so far in Baltimore, Detroit, and at least 15 other cities in Michigan, this has always been our stance. The right to water is neither a right to be debated nor to be dictated by a city’s need to meet financial obligations, yet this is often the excuse given by Detroit for shut-offs. When obligations to Wall Streetsupersede someone’s very real need to bathe, to wash dishes, to do laundry, to flush toilets — all in their own home — we have gone too far.

Yet, that’s where we are.

The problem of water affordability in the United States is a local and national problem. And it is a problem that is not going away without a drastic reallocation of money and political will. So, we should remember at election time “leaders” who let the poorest among us go without. Let them experience the force of your will as voters.

In the meantime, if you can spare even $5/month, together with hundreds of other people who give every month, you can make one hell of a difference. On behalf of the thousands of people who’ve been helped, thank you to the thousands of people who’ve given since 2014.


***The city of Detroit and various community partners spent nearly $200MM on this thing, yet it literally runs right on a bus line. It also doesn’t go nearly as far as that bus line. Most embarrassingly, an Uber or Lyft parked on the tracks can bring the whole thing to a screeching halt, making it notoriously unreliable. In contrast, just shy of $5MM is budgeted annually for water assistance by the Great Lakes Water Authority, the entity handling water in the Detroit area.

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Last modified: January 25, 2020
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