Water affordability in Detroit does not mean “free water.” Let’s stop the misinformation.

By Rahul Mitra

In a recent Detroit Free Press oped, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown praised his agency for the steps it had taken to assist residents struggling with high water bills, but ruled out stopping the water shutoffs that have affected more than 141,000 residents since 2014. The very same day, an editorial published in The Detroit News opined that “It is also the responsibility of Detroit residents to be proactive in securing assistance before it’s too late.”

Both pieces are egregious because they perpetuate misinformation about Detroit’s shocking and ongoing water shutoffs.

As the principal investigator of our publicly available “Detroit Water Stories” project (see www.detroitwaterstories.wordpress.com), I have been working with community members and leaders for the last two years, gathering and sharing stories of vulnerable residents who find themselves disconnected from running water, often through little fault of their own, many of them senior citizens and single mothers on fixed incomes. In particular, as a researcher and teacher of communication, especially how organizations frame social and environmental issues during crisis events, I find Mr. Brown’s phrasing problematic.

For instance, I am struck by the characterization of water shutoffs to vulnerable residents as “service interruptions.” This frame reduces Detroit residents to “rate-payers” alone, rather than empowered citizens who are part of a democratic whole, well within their rights to demand more efficient and compassionate treatment from their publicly-owned water utility. Moreover, framing water access solely as a “service” makes it subservient to the cost-benefit analysis of market logics that deny its vital need for a healthy life — supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Such a characterization deftly sidesteps what really happens when water “service” gets “interrupted” (often permanently): greater risk of water-borne diseases like hepatitis, foreclosure of homes burdened by already high property taxes, and the disintegration of families as Child Protection Services is called in to remove kids from homes without running water.

Make no mistake, the treatment and distribution of water costs money, and the steps launched by DWSD — such as a $500 million capital program to upgrade aging water infrastructure, expanding its Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP), partnering with community groups and state-level partners on affordability legislation — are greatly welcome. Nevertheless, assistance and affordability are not the same, and when the average residential bill in Detroit at $77.01 per month is among the highest in the nation, it is affordability (and not assistance) that we must target.

Few of the Detroit residents and community organizers I interviewed for our research are asking for a “water bailout” or to access running water in their homes for free. All they want is an accurate and affordable water bill that preserves their human dignity, without forcing them to rush downtown or dial the constantly-busy DWSD phone numbers, when they receive a bill that equals or is more than their monthly fixed income. Several residents we spoke with reported receiving shutoff notices for owing only a few dollars or cents – contrary to their popular characterization as a “last resort.” Local water rights group Hydrate has compiled an exhaustive list of some of the real reasons why so many Detroiters are behind on their water bills — ranging from a medical emergency to fixed incomes, landlord delinquency to previous homeowner neglect, and long-unchecked water pipes to bad customer service at DWSD. These are exigencies all of us can identify with, and these people do not deserve to be lambasted as “free-loaders.” None of them prioritized their smartphone over their water bill, and nor do they want charity from the DWSD.

They want affordable water.

So what are some possible solutions? Detroit City Council is presently drafting a measure requesting Governor Gretchen Whitmer to declare a public health crisis over the water shutoffs and end them. A consortium of community organizers, lawyers and researchers have urged adoption of an income-based billing system, similar to the one in Philadelphia, approved recently by Baltimore’s City Council, and being considered in Chicago. Contrary to naysayers, such a plan would not violate Michigan’s State Constitution, because it would be proportional to the service provided, serve a regulatory rather than revenue-generating purpose, and be voluntary for residents (ahem, “rate-payers”).

Let’s also do the math: currently, in a city of more than 670,000 people, DWSD has only 207,000 active residential accounts. Now imagine the possibilities: with a realistic affordability plan, how many more citizens would be able to participate in and bolster the water system?

Sometimes, the moral argument boils down to just common sense. But in order to appreciate that, we have to stop with the misinformation.

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