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The moratorium implemented almost three years ago to stop water shutoffs for Detroit households during the COVID-19 pandemic is scheduled to lift at midnight on Jan. 1, 2023. However, according to Gary Brown, Director of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), shutoffs can be prevented by customers enrolling in DWSD Lifeline Plan, Detroit’s first water affordability program.
Developed in partnership with community advocates and water affordability experts, DWSD Lifeline Plan is an income-based water affordability program. It offers qualifying customers a fixed monthly rate that will significantly reduce their monthly bill – and erase any past debt.
“When customers are enrolled in the Lifeline Plan, whatever the arrears are at that point, we pay them off,” Brown said. “And we do a home audit to fix plumbing issues so customers can maintain a low usage of water.”
Based on a PowerPoint chart sent by Brown to the Michigan Chronicle, Lifeline offers qualifying customers three tiers of affordable water payments. Tier 1 is $18 per month if household income is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Tier 2 is $43 per month if household income is above 135% of FPL but at or below 150% of the FPL. Tier 3 is $56 per month if household income is above $150 of the FPL but at or below 200% of the FPL.
Brown’s goal is to enroll 20,000 customers into the plan. There are now approximately 10,000 customers signed up. Brown and his team are proactively working to enroll more customers in Lifeline, which he calls “the best and most affordable water payment program in the country.” DWSD representatives are going door-to-door to sign customers on the spot. Brown’s team is also actively networking with community organizations, water advocate entities, and churches to help Detroit households enroll in Lifeline.
For water advocacy organizations such as We The People of Detroit, it’s imperative that households take advantage of the opportunity to enroll in Lifeline. With the Jan. 1 date for lifting the moratorium looming, time is of the essence.
“We need all hands on deck to get 20,000 applicants enrolled in the system,” Monica Lewis-Patrick, president & CEO of We the People of Detroit, told the Michigan Chronicle. “And we are happy to see a water department shifting from its past positions of really just shutting the water off with no real strategy or plan to sustain water access for Detroiters.”
Perhaps Lewis-Patrick is referring to the mass water shutoffs by DWSD that made national and world news several times over the past decade. In the fall of 2014, a United Nations team said in a UN news release that such mass acts of shutting off the water by the City of Detroit “violated human rights that fall heaviest on poor and African Americans.”
Brown, Mayor Mike Duggan, and other city officials, water justice advocates, and residents do not want to see a repeat of the massive residential water shutoffs of yesteryear in Detroit.
“When we announced the extension of the water shutoff moratorium through the end of this year, we committed to working toward solutions to permanently end water shutoffs for low-income residents,” said Duggan. “The new Lifeline Plan is a major step toward that goal, and those enrolled will continue to participate in a moratorium. We are calling on all elected officials and community leaders to join us to ensure this new program is funded long-term by state and federal dollars.”
Brown and Lewis-Patrick agree that a permanent and affordable solution to the water crisis in Detroit must involve serious collaborations with local, state, and federal governments to provide financial funding to address the complex problem long term. However, most stakeholders believe DWSD Lifeline Plan is a good start in the right direction. Lifeline is enrolling people with unprecedented numbers compared to previous payment plans for Detroit water customers.
“Our organization is grateful for the progress that we’ve seen,” said Lewis-Patrick. “We know that there is much more work to do to achieve a water affordability plan that’s permanent for the people of Detroit. But we think that Mr. Brown and the water department are really moving in a great forward trajectory.”
Brown made it clear that he is fully aware that COVID is still around, along with rising cases of RSV and the flu this winter. He knows that the absence of water due to shutoffs is problematic for addressing such health issues.
“We will absolutely be flexible and work with and be guided by our health department, which is certainly watching the numbers,” Brown said. “If, in fact, there are issues with rising numbers, we absolutely want to make sure that people have water to protect themselves.”
Brown emphasized again that the best way for Detroit residents and households challenged with paying water bills and preventing possible shutoff of services beginning Jan. 1, 2023, is to ask for help regardless of income status because assistance is available.
“No one’s water will be shut off who is in the Lifeline program,” Brown said. “But a customer can’t just ignore the bill, not pay it, and not ask for help. We want to encourage people that if they need help, regardless of income status, it’s here for them.”
To enroll in DWSD Lifeline Plan, call 313.386.9727, Monday – Friday (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.} and Saturday (9:00 a.m. to 12 noon) or connect with Wayne Metro Community Action Agency by logging on to Waynemetro.org to complete an online application.