“Assistance” is not Affordability

Posted on April 15, 2015  Tagged with:
Apr 152015

Metro Detroit needs sustainable, just and affordable water rates

By Tom Stephens

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD, as well as its still-aborning regional successor the Great Lakes Water Authority) is at it again. It has just been revealed that they are secretly planning to resume mass water shut offs against the poor.
People across the continent and even around the world have demonstrated, blockaded the water shut off trucks, blogged, e-mailed, tweeted and demanded in every way that the City follow the United Nations Resolution 64/292 of July 2010 on the human right to water and sanitation, and not cut off these essential services to people who lack the means to pay.

Other than lip service and lucrative water “assistance” contracts provided for show, the Duggan administration is having none of it. Their plans will fuel the same human rights emergency all over again, but with better optics and public relations this year.

Water affordability means water (and sewer) rates that are affordable. It doesn’t mean “free water”, nor forcing poor folks into shut off status, then paying nonprofits to conduct expensive eligibility proceedings, just so DWSD can take money out of a special account (an inadequate water assistance fund still in the process of development), and put it toward the bills.

The poverty-stricken consumer of such “assistance” is then forced into an unaffordable payment plan, and generally faces the same shut off threat emergency a few months later. That kind of “assistance” is not affordability.

ACLU investigative reporter Curt Guyette broke this story last weekend, and reported that: “Bill Nowling, who was spokesman for former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, has just been hired as spokesman for the Great Lakes Water Authority during the transition phase.

“Nowling said … the mayor said he wants to conduct a review of his assistance program for low-income residents, initiated last August, before dispatching crews to shut off service to residential customers en masse in the coming months. “The mayor said he wanted to hold off on the residential shutoffs until there is a reassessment of the water fund plan,” Nowling said.”

If it’s an honest reassessment, the Mayor’s study will seriously analyze and base the decision on how much more the rest of us who can afford to pay water and sewer bills would have to pay, in order to keep the bills of the poor below the UN’s recommended threshold of no more than 3% of household income, and avoid repeating this massive assault on the human rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of our communities.

So far the Mayor and DWSD simply refuse to even study this key empirical question of how much an affordable rate structure would actually cost those who can afford to pay for it. Any study that fails to conduct this basic economic analysis, which would allow us to make the critical policy choice between real affordability and “assistance” that leads to more mass shut offs, is simply a fraud.

Detroit can and must do better. After the pain and restructuring of the bankruptcy, it was supposed to. The world is watching to see if Mayor Duggan and his regional and state water partners will do the right thing.

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