Economy

Meet The Detroit Residents Fighting Back Against Having Their Water Shut Off

CREDIT: Nadia Gaber

Organizers and Detroit residents at the Michigan capitol building on Wednesday

On Wednesday, Michigan lawmakers held a hearing about water affordability and safety. Many of those who came to testify were residents of Detroit who have been dealing with water shutoffs, which resumed last week for thousands of people.

One of them was Annette Parham, who had her water shut off for about a year for owing $645. She’s been out of work for eight years, so at the time she didn’t have any income to pay off her bills. Meanwhile, she claims she was being charged for using more water than she needed to cook and clean for herself. Residents have seen their water bills rise 119 percent over the last decade with another 8.7 percent hike approved last year.

While the water was off, she got by the best that she could. She bought bottled water to use in her home. “I had one neighbor who let me wash clothes, another neighbor let me take a bath,” she said. But even without water flowing from her faucets, her bills kept accumulating because she says she was still being charged for sewage.

The experience wasn’t just difficult, but humiliating. When a house gets its water shutoff, the Water and Sewage Department marks the sidewalk in front in blue. “They went through the whole neighborhood, almost the whole east side,” she said. “When I be out walking, you could see all the blue.” Despite the fact that she had a lot of company, she hated the attention it drew to her. “The kids say, ‘Oh they cut your water off,'” she said. “It just got to the point that it was really embarrassing, hurt my feelings.”

She’s confident that if she had been able to take advantage of a plan based on her ability to pay, she could have kept her water on. “I would have been able to take care of it, to pay it,” she says.

Today, she’s homeless, moving from friend to friend who will take her in. “Now it’s just like, I’m waking up everyday to survive.”

Activists and organizers pushed state lawmakers on an affordability plan at the hearing in front of a packed room with at least seven lawmakers present, according to Sylvia Orduno with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. The Detroit city council approved a plan in 2006 that would have set water rates between 2 and 3 percent of a resident’s income, rather than a flat rate, but it was never implemented.

Their testimonies on Wednesday also raised the disparities between rates that Detroit residents pay and those paid by people living in the suburbs. While one person testified that her bill had reached $900 a month, a representative of Oakland County, a wealthier area, noted that her own bill is about $160 every three months. Those testifying asked “to get some equity in the rates,” Orduno said.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D), who helped organize the hearing, said her plan is to take what got discussed in the hearing and turn it into action. “We’ll be taking that information to hopefully work on some legislation,” she said. No bills have been introduced yet, and she noted that “everything is still in a little bit of an ideas stage.” But she would like to see a bill that would allow municipal water systems and others to create affordability plans, as well as look at shutoff protections. At the end of the hearing, Orduno said lawmakers brought up the possibility of a shutoff moratorium as well as forgiving bills for those who don’t even receive them for a certain amount of time.

Roslyne Walker, another Detroit resident, could really use an affordability plan. The water department had already threatened to shut her water off once for owing $600, but she enrolled in a program meant to help her keep her water on and pay it back. It’s not helping her very much. “The program they put me on, they want me to pay the current and late fees. That’s too much,” she said. Her bill, she says, is now $1,150. “Every month I pay $127 [but] it’s going up and up and up.”

Then on Sunday, she got home to find a shutoff notice on her door saying the last day of service will be June 9. If she loses her water, she’s certain she’ll lose her housing. She lost her job working for the city in 2008 and has since enrolled in Section 8 housing assistance. “When you don’t have a job, they pay your rent but they don’t pay your bills,” she noted. “If you can’t keep up your bills, you’ll get kicked out of Section 8.” She doesn’t have somewhere else to go. “My disabled son…will be out on the street,” she said. “I’m praying to god that doesn’t happen.”

She’s hoping that the hearing will bring her some relief. “If they gave us affordable water and anther contract or deal, we would be able to pay our water bills,” she said. She noted that many in attendance at the hearing were moved to tears by the stories they heard. “So maybe they’ll make a deal for them to stop turning off the water.”