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In efforts to curb coronavirus, U.S. cities pause water shutoffs

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 22 March 2020 10:00 GMT

Contract worker Vaughn Harrington holds notices by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to inform residents how to restore water service in response to the coronavirus outbreak in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

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New measure to tackle spread of COVID-19 highlights need to make water more affordable for the poorest, campaigners say

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For the first time in years, all residents of Detroit, Michigan, have been promised running water in their homes — and anti-poverty groups are hoping to keep it that way.

Earlier this month, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan announced that during the coronavirus outbreak the city would be halting all new water shutoffs and restoring service to homes that had previously been cut off.

City officials said the move would affect 3,000 households whose bills are in arrears.

Detroit has since been followed by at least 240 cities and other local jurisdictions that have put in place moratoriums on water shutoffs amid the outbreak, according to Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group that is calling for a nationwide ban on shutoffs.

While the measures are aimed at ensuring all residents can regularly wash their hands in efforts to halt the pandemic, anti-poverty advocates in Detroit see them as a small victory after years spent tangling with city governments over the issue of shutoffs.

Rights groups in the city estimate the number of people affected by water shutoffs is actually up to three times the official figure.

"We've been fighting this for six years," said Maureen Taylor, chairwoman of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), in a phone interview.

She called the city's move an "instant water-affordability plan".

In recent years, the work that Taylor and other members of a Detroit coalition called the People's Water Board have done has sparked a national conversation around what activists say is a dire need for income-based water billing.

Members of the coalition helped put together a proposed plan in 2005 that would cap sewer and water bills at 2% of a household's income.

It hasn't been implemented in Detroit, but modified versions have been put in place elsewhere — first in Philadelphia in 2017 and then in Baltimore last year.

Several other cities are looking at doing the same, Taylor said.

"There is an appetite for a water-affordability plan nationwide," she said. "People are quite aware that you cannot put together a program where you disengage access to fresh water and sanitation based on people's ability to pay."

The Detroit mayor's office declined to comment.


Like Philadelphia and Baltimore, Detroit has struggled with a declining population and tax base alongside aging water systems that are expensive to maintain, said Mary Grant, campaign director with Food & Water Watch.

That has prompted cities to routinely increase water rates across the country over recent years — and use punitive measures to collect on unpaid bills, she said.

From 2014 to 2018, Detroit shut off water to more than 112,000 households, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan - a move criticised by the United Nations.

The city did create a program in 2016 that helps residents who get behind on their water bills.

But the initiative does not create a tiered payment system, leaving the people it's meant to benefit to keep falling into arrears, critics say.

About 15 million Americans - almost 5% of the population - had their water service discontinued in 2016, Food & Water Watch estimated in a recent report, using the most recent data available.

The U.S. government defines water affordability as having water costs that are less than 4.5% of household income; the United Nations says 3%.

Unaffordable water bills can have stark results, said Taylor of the MWRO.

She recalled visiting homes where one person's need to use the toilet — often a toddler — would lead the entire family to line up to go to the bathroom, too, so they could save water by flushing just once.

A lack of running water, meanwhile, can quickly lead to even larger consequences.

"You could be evicted, families could be torn apart, it could even be considered child neglect in a number of states," said Grant at Food & Water Watch.

When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office last year, one of her first official acts was to impose a moratorium on water shutoffs, calling water access "a basic human right".


Unlike other utilities, many water systems in the United States are owned by local governments, even as federal support for water infrastructure has fallen by about 75% since the 1970s, Grant said.

"So the burden is falling on localities to make improvements (to their water systems), and local governments are increasing rates," Grant said.

Baltimore, for instance, has been watching its water rates rise by 10% per year.

In one of the first nationwide studies of the issue, Michigan State University researchers in 2017 projected that the number of people unable to pay their water bills could triple by 2022, leaving more than a third of the country in arrears.

Collection methods for unpaid water bills can include not only shutoffs but even forced sales of homes and other buildings.

That almost happened to Reverend Alvin Gwynn Sr., pastor at Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, five years ago.

Due to the city's rising water rates coupled with a change in billing methods, his church's water bill suddenly rose from $100 to thousands per month, he said.

"And if you didn't pay your water bill, it went into the property tax system, where they would put your property up for tax sale," he said, noting he almost lost his church this way until he paid a $6,000 bill.

"I have a list of about 16 churches that were experiencing the same thing," said Gwynn.

He subsequently helped push through the new law, passed in November 2019, which will see the city create an income-based billing system.

It aims to keep water bills within 3% of household income, or even lower for certain families, said Grant.

"We're still pretty far off from where everyone can count on safe, affordable water at home. But awareness is growing across the country, and that can only help," she said.


According to energy consultant Roger D. Colton, who drew up the original tiered billing plan in Detroit, water suppliers are now catching up to the electricity sector, which realized a quarter-century ago that there is an economic argument in favor of affordable bills.

"It's better to recognize the dollars that you're billing but not collecting and provide that in a discount than it is to bill money that people can't pay and then spend on trying to collect that," he said.

"When Philadelphia succeeds, when Baltimore succeeds, that will demonstrate to the rest of the water industry that this isn't a crazy idea — that this is a prudent way to do business."

For now, the issue of how to address water affordability remains a matter of debate.

In making the recent announcement about pausing water shutoffs, Detroit's mayor Duggan emphasized that the new policy would last only as long as the coronavirus outbreak, emphasizing that "a moratorium on shutoffs is a guaranteed failed policy".

A spokesman for the mayor pointed to Chicago's experience, where water bill revenue dropped by $20 million per month under the new shutoff ban, according to media reports.

But for welfare rights advocate Maureen Taylor, a precedent has now been set: "Once you allow an affordability plan like this, how will you go back?"

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)


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