Melissa Mays and her family have been through a lot. They’ve been living in their four bedroom house with a big backyard in Flint, Michigan since 2009; they were there in early 2014, when the city’s water source changed and officials failed to use the right chemicals to protect the water from lead and other contaminants.
Since late 2015, the city’s residents have had to rely on either filters or bottled water to drink or cook to avoid lead poisoning. Three years in, they still can’t drink the water that comes out of their taps.
For Mays’ family, that has meant grappling with a number of serious health problems — including autoimmune disorders, kidney stones, and seizures — as well as financial costs such as buying three $500 hot water heaters when each one broke thanks to the chemicals and sediment in their pipes.
Now, it also means she might lose the house that her family loves so dearly.
In the wake of the lead crisis, Mays and many other city residents refused to pay their water bills — which, at the time of the lead crisis, were the highest in the country — given that the water they were paying for was poisoned. The state had been subsidizing some people’s bills, but in March that financial support disappeared.
“Nobody should pay for poison.”
Then, the city started sending out shutoff notices, warning residents who weren’t paying their bills they would have their water cut off. Mays was one of the people who got such a letter last month, but she wasn’t deterred.
“I was like, ‘You know what, we’ll live off of bottled water, we’ll make this work,’” she said. She and her family were considering getting a cistern or rain barrel for their yard to get through. “Because nobody should pay for poison.”
On Friday, everything changed. She received a different letter from the city informing her that the state may soon put a tax lien on her house. If she doesn’t pay $819 of her water bill by May 19th, Michigan will begin the process of foreclosing on her.
“That changes the game,” she said. “We could deal living on bottled water because we have been. But we can’t live without a home, we can’t lose our home.”
Mays isn’t the only one. While residents had been anticipating the shutoff notices, the tax lien letters showed up without any warning. Now, just over 8,000 residents who have received those notices have until February 28, 2018 to pay their bills in full to forestall the foreclosure process.
This could be a tough hurdle for many residents to clear. More than 40 percent of Flint’s population lives below the poverty line.
Mays called her attorney to see if she had any other options besides paying, but was informed that it’s her only option. So her family will have to dig deep to find the money. The plan is to skip any bills necessary to come up with the nearly $900 they owe: their car payment, health care bills, even the mortgage.
“We’re basically going to skip a bunch of bills to be able to pay this, which is just absurd,” she said.
They’re also facing smaller costs that add up. For example, Mays regularly spends $50 at the laundromat since she can’t wash clothes at home. Her son is about to graduate high school, so she was planning to buy him a suit. “I’m freaking out, how am I going to buy him a suit?” she said. “We’ll go to Goodwill and see if something fits him.” Next year, they’ll face the costs of his college education.
“We don’t live in Flint because we’re wealthy,” she added. “So this isn’t something like a drop in the bucket for us, it’s huge.”
She also wishes she had been given some warning this was coming, or at least more time to come up with the money. Unaware of what she was about to face, she bought a new $139 lawn mower just last week after theirs was stolen out of their garage. “I would have put off buying a new lawn mower if I had known there was a tax lien coming,” she said.
“We don’t live in Flint because we’re wealthy. So this isn’t something like a drop in the bucket for us, it’s huge.”
For her part, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver also appears to be upset about the process. “I must say, I agree with those who have spoken out against this process,” she said in a statement. “I am working to see if any changes or something can be done to help those affected by this, especially given the extraordinary circumstances we have endured due to the water crisis.” But she also noted that the city must pursue tax liens by law.
The hopes of some financial relief for a community that has endured so much trauma for so long seem dim.
“I’m a stubborn person and there’s always an option,” Mays said. “But this is the one time there’s not.”