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Report highlights water affordability issues in Detroit suburbs

Michigan legislative leaders say they expect lots of attention this year to water affordability and quality issues, starting with a bill that would declare water to be a human right.
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Struggling to afford water bills and suffering shutoffs isn’t just a Detroit problem—it happens in the suburbs, too.

Struggling to afford water bills and suffering shutoffs isn’t just a Detroit problem — it happens in the suburbs, too.

That’s the central theme of a newUniversity of Michigan report. It doesn’t attempt to quantify the problem, but highlights the stories of 15 people who live in a range of suburban communities. All struggled to pay water bills, and five had experienced shutoffs.

Lead researcher Dana Kornberg is now an assistant sociology professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. She said that each of those people had a unique story of either chronic or short-term hardship, sometimes brought about by the death of the spouse, an illness or disability, or being forced into a caretaker role for another person.

But Kornberg said some common themes emerged in participants’ stories, including this one: “There had been a switch to smart meters in several communities, and multiple residents reported that those immediately had spiked their water bills higher than they had been in the past.”

Korberg said that only a handful of participants had received any kind of payment assistance, though nearly all qualified for it. That’s because suburban water departments didn’t — or couldn’t — point residents toward a single place to get help.

“So it really leaves it up to the residents to be able to make all those phone calls and figure out what do they qualify for, who still has funding available,” Kornberg said. “It really puts the burden on the resident to figure that out.”

Kornberg said as a result, suburban customers often have a harder time finding water assistance programs than Detroit residents. That’s because those resources tend to be less centralized in the suburbs. And that poses a problem as the number of low-income people in suburban communities grows.

“This suburbanization of poverty that sociologists have been tracking in the last couple of decades … it causes a real disjuncture between where services are historically offered for low-income residents, and where people with low incomes are living,” Kornberg said. She added that some participants had worked out informal payment arrangements with their local water department.

The Great Lakes Water Authority, the water utility that serves communities across southeast Michigan, recently introduced an income-based water assistance plan. The city of Detroit has a similar program, the Lifeline plan.

Diane Weckerle, a former public health nurse and member of the People’s Water Board, said any kind of income-based payment plan is a good step forward, and something activists have been pushing for a long time. But she said those programs can still be difficult to access.

“It’s not just a problem of knowing about them, but there's all these huge hoops you have to jump through in order to get that money” including past water bills, proof of income for all adults in the household, and proof of ownership, Weckerle said.

Another problem for people struggling to pay water bills — and for the researchers hoping to find them — is the shame and stigma surrounding the issue, Weckerle said.

“The shame … it’s just unbelievable. It is so hard to get information,” she said.

“It's clear it's a huge problem. It's just people don't like to admit it, and they don't ask for help. A lot of times they don't know where to ask for help.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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