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New research shows water bills are unaffordable across metro Detroit

Water faucet
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The EPA says 4.5 percent of household monthly income constitutes an affordable water bill. Low-income metro Detroiters are paying more than double that.

Low-income households across metro Detroit can't afford their water bills, and new research from the University of Michigan says there’s now an affordability gap: people are paying more for water than they can actually afford.

Water poverty within the city of Detroit has been a known issue for several years now, but the new survey of houses across Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties aimed to investigate whether the water affordability gap exists outside of the city limits too.

Dahlia Rockowitz, one of the student researchers who worked on the project, said the results were conclusive.

“What we found is there are people struggling everywhere,” Rockowitz said.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency says an affordable water bill is about 4.5 percent of a household’s monthly income.

Rockowitz and her fellow researchers found that low-income metro Detroiters were paying about 10 percent of their incomes on water each month. They self-reported that they were paying $45.08 more on water a month than they could actually afford.

But the high cost of these bills doesn't mean they aren't getting paid.

“In order to keep those water bills paid, because there was fear and concern about water shut off, what we found is that these residents were cutting back on other necessities and other expenses,” Rockowitz said.

The researchers found that 84 percent of residents surveyed said they cut back on monthly expenses to pay their water bills, while 51 percent of households reported switching off between water and energy bills when they couldn’t afford to pay both at the same time.

Assistance is helping these residents, but it isn’t doing enough: almost 80 percent of households receiving water bill assistance still reported paying over 4.5 percent of their monthly income on the bill.

Rockowitz acknowledged that this won’t be an easy problem to solve. But she says that something does need to be done by policymakers— and preferably soon. The researchers included several recommendations in their report for how to alleviate the issue, including setting income-based rates and establishing a life-life rate so that all households are at least getting a minimum amount of water necessary for hygiene and survival.

Maya Goldman is a newsroom intern for Michigan Radio. She is currently a student at the University of Michigan, where she studies anthropology and writing. During the school year, Maya also works as a senior news editor and podcast producer for The Michigan Daily.
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