A record number of Detroiters enrolled in a new water affordability program saved an average of $63 on their September bill — but the city still lacks adequate funding to keep it running beyond the next year and a half.
The City of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department launched the Lifeline Plan over the summer to offer fixed monthly rates between $18 to $56, based on income and water use. More than 10,800 people have applied for Lifeline so far, already surpassing the 4,000 households that are part of another affordability program in any given year.
The Lifeline Plan is an 18-month pilot program paid for with $15 million in state, regional and federal dollars, Bryan Peckinpaugh, DWSD spokesperson said in an email. That funding could support 20,000 households in the Lifeline Plan.
City officials are still working to line up other funding sources to continue the new program. One recent proposal would use funds from the department’s agreement with American Water Resources (AWR) — a water and sewer line protection plan — to support the program.
For years advocates have demanded a way to address high water bills and shut offs for nonpayment. The City of Detroit’s pandemic-era moratorium on shutoffs expires at the end of the year and officials have said that those enrolled in payment plans will not be disconnected.
This article was produced in partnership with the Detroit Free Press.
As of Oct. 3, 10,815 Detroiters applied for the Lifeline Plan, Peckinpaugh said.
Among those customers, 4,224 received their first bill in September. Another 6,591 applicants are in the process of getting into the program, or have already been enrolled, and should see changes reflected in their October bill, he said.
Wayne Metropolitan Action Agency — the organization enrolling Detroiters — is working through the large volume of applications that came when the program initially launched. The typical turnaround time for a decision is seven to 10 business days, Peckinpaugh said.
The program requires participants to keep their water usage within limits set by the city, something advocates have pushed back against, saying they require “water rationing.”
Last year, the average monthly bill for a residential customer was $81.62, according to DWSD.
Customers’ water usage must stay within 4,500 gallons a month in order to be billed at a fixed rate. If a household goes above that, they will be charged at a higher rate of about $4.50 for every additional 748 gallons, or centum cubic foot (CCF), plus a sewage volume charge of $5.54 per CCF. If a family’s income qualifies them for the program’s first tier and they end up using 6,000 gallons of water, their bill would be $38.06 instead of $18, according to DWSD.
Peckinpaugh said, of the more than 4,200 enrollees, 95% of households are using less than 4,500 gallons of water a month. Two hundred households are above the usage. Wayne Metro is performing water audits on those homes to determine if leaks are leading to high water usage.
Maxine Medina signed up for the Lifeline Plan earlier this year. She said the program would be a relief since she’d have to pay $18 a month.
Medina, 54, was out of work for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s back to work now, but for several months she relied on other streams of income – unemployment, savings, her partner’s job and side gigs.
She struggled to cover her expenses and felt like she had to make tough choices. Medina’s bill prior to being in the program averaged between $62 to $68 per month.
“It’s exhausting mentally,” she said. “…You’re trying to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
When Medina opened her most recent bill, however, she did not see the savings she expected. She thought she wasn’t enrolled in the program yet. But she was charged for using more than the approved amount of water.
Medina said she’s been traveling for the past month and a half, and no one’s really been using water at her house. She lives alone. However, she watered her grass during the tail end of the summer and sometimes a friend uses her washing machine, which she said might explain the usage.
“We can get her connected with our Home Water Audit team as soon as possible to make sure she does not have a leak or plumbing issue that could have caused the spike,” Shama Mounzer, executive director of empowerment and integration services for Wayne Metro, said in an email.
Peckinpaugh said it’s possible that water may have been left running or someone may have used her outdoor water spigot. If she did have a leak, she can request a “leak credit” with a receipt showing that it was repaired, he said.
Medina’s experience dovetails with some concerns advocates raised when the program was launched.
If a customer goes above the usage, Wayne Metro provides a free water audit and plumbing repairs, according to DWSD.
DWSD collected feedback from residents — through an online form, enrollment fairs and Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC) meetings — from late June through September. Comments ranged from praise for the program to questions about eligibility. Others expressed concern that the usage cap was too low and said the plan does not go far enough.
Commenters recommended a host of changes from asking Detroit City Council to pass a formal ordinance to enact a water affordability plan to encouraging DWSD to be more flexible around the usage level based on the number of people in a home.
Peckinpaugh said DWSD is reviewing the feedback and will go back to the Board of Water Commissioners in the next three months with a possible amendment.
We The People of Detroit (WPD), a water advocacy organization, has been in constant communication with DWSD about their concerns with the Lifeline Plan.
Tiana Starks, WPD communication director, said that 4,500 gallons is a low number for low-income customers who have several people living in the same household.
“Overall, we do feel like the plan is a step in the right direction,” Starks said. “Our concerns are about the long-term funding and about the gallons available within the plan.”
How to pay for the program in the future
When WPD asked DWSD Director Gary Brown in August what will happen at the end of the pilot plan if no funding is secured, he responded that they intend to approach the governor and state Legislature for funding to keep the plan moving through 2024, and will advocate for funding at the federal level.
The water department continues to be in communication with elected officials, philanthropy and water advocates, Peckinpaugh said.
“DWSD continues to bolster the national coalition that is encouraging Congress and the EPA to enact a long-term Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP),” he said.
During a Sept. 21 Detroit Board of Water Commissioners meeting, Brown suggested DWSD could support the Lifeline Plan with money the department receives from AWR, its vendor for a water and sewer line protection plan offered to Detroit residents.
In return for DWSD’s endorsement of AWR’s water and sewer line protection programs for Detroit customers, the water department will receive 2% of AWR’s annual enrollments for “community programs.” This percentage is what Brown hopes to propose as annual support for the Lifeline Plan.
“I think we’ll make recommendations on three or four ways in which we can help our low income customers with the dollars that come in,” Brown said during the meeting.
The contract, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, estimates AWR will provide DWSD between $800,000 and $2.1 million in the first 10 years.
Peckinpaugh said the first payment from AWR will likely be around January and is based on the first seven months of enrollments, rather than a full 12 months since the endorsement happened in May. Since then, there have been about 12,000 Detroit residents who signed up for the AWR program.
Most of them signed up for the combined water and sewer line protection plan which is $7.98 a month, according to Benjamin Brockschmidt, the director of strategic partnerships at AWR.
With the current number of enrollments, Outlier Media and the Free Press estimate about $13,000 will be granted to DWSD in January. Brockschmidt said this number is accurate.
Both DWSD and AWR declined to provide an estimate for the full year of enrollments. Peckinpaugh said a better estimate can be provided at the end of the calendar year when there is a final number of enrollments.
Peckinpaugh said Brown will present to the BOWC during December’s finance committee meeting at the earliest on how best to use these funds toward the Lifeline Plan.
How to get help
The next enrollment fair, where residents can learn more about the program and apply in person, will take place Oct. 24 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Grace Community Church (21001 Moross Road). Residents should first register by calling 313-386-9727.
For more information about the Lifeline Plan, go to www.waynemetro.org/dwsdlifeline/, or call Wayne Metro at 313-386-9727.
Reach Malak Silmi, the Report for America Corps Member for Outlier Media, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-985-0377.
Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Detroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA.