Estimating the Price of Vitality

By Marissa Burns

On June 12, 2019 the Detroit Water Stories team had the pleasure of hosting a focus group at St. Patricks Senior Center to gather perspectives from this population on water availability. We gathered participants in one of the community rooms, had introductions, and dove into the topic of water in Detroit. Participants talked about everything from being kicked out of their apartments because their landlord had not paid the water bill for the entire building, to their children and grandchildren helping them with their water bill when it was unexpectedly high. Many of the participants had never missed a water bill payment, yet had little to no understanding of what they were being charged for on their bill or how to go about checking the accuracy of that bill. 

During this conversation, multiple people mentioned that they felt their bills were estimates of what water they were actually using. Some participants said that their water bill from November of 2018 was exactly the same amount as 2017, down to the cent. This seems highly unlikely and raises a red flag for residents trying to monitor their water consumption. One participant even noted that they were not in their home for multiple weeks and yet their water bill had not decreased that month. When we asked if participants had checked their water meter to see if this reflected their water bill, we were met with responses of exasperation at the meter itself, as well!

Many of the houses in Detroit are very old and have not had their meters updated in decades, therefore the meter itself was either inaccurate or very hard to read/get to. Especially for senior citizens, having easy access and clear readability on their meters is essential. Participants mentioned that, if they were living in a house they owned, they often had inherited the residence and had no idea when the meter had last been replaced, but they did not know where to find information on how to go about replacing it due to much of this information being moved online.

The online format the Detroit water department adopted may be more accessible for some populations, but for the senior community this format is very hard to navigate and alienating, especially when it comes to understanding their bill, and how to challenge a charge on said bill.

While we discussed the issues with bill estimation, we also discussed indirect charges put on people’s bills. People mentioned drainage fees going up in the past few years, as well as new storm water charges they had not noticed before. Participants said they did not recall receiving a notice of new charges on their bill, nor had a representative from the water department spoken to them. They said that a worker from the water department coming out to somewhere like St. Patricks to explain the charges on their bill and answer residents’ questions would go a long way in regaining their trust in the department and their bills.

The conversation we had at St. Patricks illuminated the issue of information making it to all populations in Detroit, especially communities at high risk of water shutoffs. Many seniors are living on a small, fixed income so knowing why they are being charged and how to challenge a bill is essential information for their financial well-being. Additionally, bills should not be estimations of resident’s true water consumption, especially when they are trying to conserve water or cut back for the sake of their water bill. Those extra dollars every month residents are being charged in drainage, storm water removal, and water usage estimation can cost them to sacrifice other vital products such as medication, rent, and other utilities.

Speaking to the seniors of St. Patricks was highly engaging, we appreciate their time and perspective.

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