Cutting Off People’s Water Is Just Wrong

Separated by over 500 miles, Detroit and Baltimore share a few common qualities. Both once thriving steel towns, the cities now face major economic problems. While a recent Pew poll ranked Detroit worse than Baltimore across several important indicators such as unemployment, median household income, poverty and those without health insurance, both of these cities with large African American populations are hurting. This is particularly evidenced by one indicator not featured in Pew’s poll that nonetheless speaks volumes about the overall health of each city – residents of both cannot afford to pay their water bills.

Last summer, thousands of Detroit residents who were behind on their water bills lost access to water service, and in March, Baltimore announced it would disconnect water service for 25,000 customers. If you’ve followed this issue in the mainstream media as we have, you’ll know that many publications are reporting “delinquent payments” as the cause of this crisis. But what they’re actually both experiencing is water affordability problems.

Many of us take for granted the fact that when we turn on the tap, water flows out of it. But many low-income people in the United States can no longer count on that. Instead, they must choose between spending their limited financial resources on transportation to low wage jobs, or heating their homes.

In Detroit, nearly 40% of residents and more than half the city’s children live in poverty. The city’s unemployment rate as of February 2015 is 12.5% – more than twice the national rate. Over the last decade, water and sewer bills there have more than doubled. Nearly a quarter of all Baltimoreans live in poverty and one-third of Baltimore households earn less than $25,000 a year. Yet the typical household paid about $800 dollars a year on water and sewer services, as water rates have tripled over the past 15 years and continue to increase. The economic conditions in these cities simply prohibit many from being able to afford water service.

The United Nations Development Programme set a threshold for affordable water and sanitation at 3% of household income. Water rates in each city exceed that by considerable margins.

What’s particularly tragic and frustrating about the water shutoffs in Detroit is that they could have been avoided. In 2006, the Detroit City Council approved a Water Affordability Plan, supported by the Michigan Welfare Right Organization and the People’s Water Board. The DWSD chose to implement its own plan instead, directed towards households at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. The plan’s major flaw is that it’s only applicable after a customer is facing or experiencing a water shutoff. Similarly, the 10/30/50 water plan developed last year by Mayor Mike Dugan and the DWSD also requires households to already be behind on their bills to qualify.

In Baltimore, one-third of residents cannot afford their water rates based on this UN metric. Baltimore’s existing low-income assistance program is also inadequate. The city currently offers a grant of $161 to certain low-income residents who are behind on their bills. But the typical annual household water bill after accounting for the grant is $643 – still unaffordable to many, particularly the one in five households that earn less than $15,000 a year.

Why wait that long? Water is not a privilege, after all. It’s a human right, as recognized by the United Nations.

Both cities need more effective assistance programs. The Water Affordability Plan proposed by Detroit community advocates is preventative, allowing water customers to avoid have their water service shutoff. The plan is based on income, and qualification is determined by the ratio of a household’s utility bill to its income. What’s key here is that a customer doesn’t have to already be in default to qualify.

The larger issue however, is that local water bills are increasing because federal funding to community water systems has declined dramatically. The federal share of capital investment in water systems peaked in 1977 at 63%, but fell to a record low of 7% in 2006 under the Bush administration. After a slight boost in 2010 to 12% from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan, it fell to 9% last year. Water service is too important to be left to the whims of politics, which is why we need a steady, dedicated source of federal funding in the form of a water trust fund. The experience of those in Baltimore and Detroit who are without water illustrates this very point.