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Report: Detroit's poorest households face highest "water burden" in the country

Running faucet
Melissa Benmark
Michigan Radio

Low-income Detroiters spend more household income on water bills than comparable households in other cities, according to a new report that tracked residential water shutoffs nationwide.

The report from the group Food and Water Watch calls shutoffs "America's secret water crisis." It looked at 2016 data from water utilities across the country, and estimates that nationwide, around 15 million households experienced a water shutoff that year. It projects that number will grow as more utilities make long-delayed investments in water and sewer infrastructure systems.

In Detroit, the group’s data shows that just over 13% of all households experienced a water shutoff in 2016. That was the ninth-highest shutoff rate in the nation, and affected more than 27,000 households.

Thatnumber has fallen offsince 2014, when the city first adopted an aggressive shutoff policy in the midst of its bankruptcy. However, it remains a chronic problem. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department shut off residential water service nearly 20,000 times in 2017.

Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, says some of the poorest families can go without water service for weeks or even months. She spoke about one family, a mother with four children, that's been living without water since last month.

“Just last week, we delivered about 30 gallons of emergency water just so that they could be able to wash the dishes, brush the teeth, pour some water in the toilet, these basic things that we often don’t think about when we’re turning on the tap,” Orduño said.

Orduño says widespread water shutoffs are leading to other crises. She says she’s worked with families who have lost children to Child Protective Services because their homes were deemed unfit. Activists also maintain, with some evidence, that the shutoffs are linked to an increased incidence of bacterial infections and other illnesses tied to a lack of sanitation.

Detroit doesn’t have the highest water bills of the cities surveyed. But Food and Water Watch’s Mary Grant says it does have high enough bills that it’s a problem for the lowest-income households.

“New Orleans and Detroit both have high water bills--more than a thousand dollars a year for a typical household--and they’re low-income cities. They have a lot of people that are just really struggling,” Grant said.

Detroit had the highest “water burden” the report calculated, using average bills and income for the poorest 20-percent of households. It found those households spent over 10-percent of their income on water service. In New Orleans, that burden for the poorest households was 9.2-percent, resulting in a 17-percent shutoff rate.

The report found that Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma had the highest shutoff rates among all water utilities that provided data—23.1 and 19.7-percent, respectively.

Food and Water Watch recommends that states require all utilities to disclose shutoff and reconnection data. It also urges the federal government to provide more funding to offset costs that are passed onto customers, and local affordability programs to help bring down bills for the poorest households.

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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