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Detroit water shutoffs set for next week, as payment plans fail

Andrea Malone has been on and off payment plans for months.
Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

Some 18,000 Detroit households could have their water shut off next week,  less than a year after the city started a program that was supposed to avoid this exact situation.

Payment plans were supposed to keep households from facing shut-offs. But those plans have shown themselves to be a failure.

So far, payment plans don't work 

Just about everybody who signs up for a payment plan has fallen behind, including Andrea Malone.

"I missed a payment because I had to pay another bill,” she says. “It was either pay the water, or pay the electricity, or buy food, or pay (my daughter's) hospital bill. So I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Malone is a single mom. Her daughter has been in and out of the hospital.

She signed up for a payment plan last year, after Mayor Mike Duggan announced the program following all the criticism the city was getting for shutting off people’s water.

Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Mayor Duggan rolled out payment plans for people behind on their water bills last summer, but most people fell off those plans.

"Here's the thing,” Duggan said in a press conference laying out the plan last summer. “You have to stick to a payment arrangement. We're not going to make a payment arrangement with you, and then a month or two later you don't pay."

But that's exactly what happened.

In March, there were 24,737 households on payment plans, as a water department report shows and as the ACLU's Curt Guyette recently pointed out.

But 24,444 of them were at least two months late.

Which means a mere 300 or so were current on their bills. 

In March, only 300 Detroit households were current on their payment plans. The other 24,000 were at least two months late.

Every single other household was at least two months behind.

Trying to get back on the plans, and get assistance 

Now that the city is threatening shutoffs again, people like Andrea Malone are calling up the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, trying to get back on those payment plans.


Credit Kate Wells
Andrea Malone, left, and activist Beulah Walker, call the water department to get Malone back on her payment plan

Currently, the city says about 30,000 households are on payment plans.

But 18,000 households are late enough and owe enough to put them back in shutoff status.

But every time a household falls off a payment plan, it takes a bigger down payment to get back on a payment plan again.

Malone currently owes the water department $537.68. She says she'll try to borrow money from her ex or pawn her DVD player in order to to make a down payment and get back on a plan.

But then what? Does she feel like this time, she might be able to stay on the plans?

"We're telling you that, the plan was not successful. Based on what we've all agreed success should be measured by." - Gary Brown, Detroit operations director

"Not really," she says. "It's tough. It's either pay the water bill or get it shut off. And I can't be without water. So, I'm struggling."

There ishelp available for low income people, but it’s limited. Right now the fund has about $2 million. This summer it’ll be up to $6 million.

To put that in perspective, though, Detroit residents owe the city $47 million in late water bills, according to a water department report from March.

Detroit may need an affordability program, says city operations director 

Headshot of Gary Brown, Director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department
Credit Courtesy of Detroit City Council website
Gary Brown, the city's operations director

"Helping with the arrearages and helping with the monthly payment, is not enough," city operations director Gary Browntold the Detroit City Council at a May 4 meeting. Brown runs the city's operations for the mayor’s office.

Brown also acknowledged at that meeting that the payment plans were not working.

"We're telling you that, the plan was not successful. Based on what we've all agreed success should be measured by,” he said, referring to how many people had fallen off the plans.   

So Brown suggested something completely new for Detroit, an affordability program, "because that really speaks to the poverty that's going on in our city." 

Basically, an affordability program is a permanent discount on water bills for low-income people.

But not everyone appears to agree – including Brown's boss, Mayor Mike Duggan.

"I don't know how you would begin to do an affordability program...How would you ever figure out what the income is in a household from one day to the next?" Duggan asked.

"I don't know how you would begin to do an affordability program,” Duggan told reporters last Monday. “We've got 275,000 households in this city. How would you ever figure out what the income is in a household from one day to the next?"

But other cities have implemented affordability plans, as the ACLU’s Curt Guyette recently pointed out, including Cleveland andPortland.

Meanwhile, Detroit officials know the payment plans failed, and they know the assistance funds aren’t big enough to fix things.

Despite that, the city is expected to resume shutoffs next week. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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