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Access to water service in Detroit continues to be a population health issue

August 23, 2016 | Comment


By Esperanza Cantu

Access to water service by vulnerable populations remains an issue for the Population Health Council. Recently, Professor john powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, co-chair of the Population Health Council, advised its Community Engagement and Advocacy Advisory Committee, to work within the purview of the Council’s expertise and focus on the public health effects of lack of access to processed water. The committee issued a statement approved in June that advocated for public health-based exceptions to the water shutoffs. Building upon a memorandum from Raquel Castañeda-López, City Council Member of District 6, the statement advocates for a moratorium on water shutoffs for the following:

• Infants and children under the age of 18
• Seniors age 62 and above
• Persons with mental illness
• Persons with disabilities
• Expectant and/or breastfeeding mothers
• Persons dealing with chronic diseases or otherwise in need of critical and/or medical care

The Population Health Council continues to support the adoption of a water affordability plan, as opposed to the current assistance plan administered by the Great Lakes Water Authority. Philadelphia City Council passed water affordability legislation unanimously in November 2015, and Mayor Michael Nutter signed the ordinance on December 1, 2015. “The law marked the beginning of a fundamental shift in how the City of Philadelphia would assist low-income families in maintaining life-essential water service,” according to Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.According to the legislation, Philadelphia’s water affordability plan must be implemented by September 2017. Importantly, current available research suggests that water affordability plans result in higher utility revenues because customers are better equipped to pay bills that are based on household income.

Back in Detroit, however, community members opposed to the current water assistance plan released a report entitled “Mapping the Water Crisis, The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit, Volume I.” The group, called “We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective,” presented research that shows a correlation between water shutoffs and home foreclosures. In 2006, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department decided that unpaid water bills could be included in property taxes. The majority of foreclosed homes with unpaid taxes in Wayne County have been in Detroit. It is estimated that between 12 and 27 percent of tax-foreclosed homes had water debt included in unpaid property taxes. Despite the poor data available to the community research collective, the picture that emerges reveals structural racism that unfortunately continues to disparage Detroit’s Black community.

Recently, mixed reports have emerged suggesting funding for Detroit’s water bill assistance program may not last through the month. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department and Great Lakes Water Authority released a statement that indicated the program is adequately funded and is not running out of money, despite recent reports indicating that it was in fact out of funds.

As officials continue to grapple with how to receive payments from water customers, the Population Health Council continues to advocate for a water affordability plan as a long-term solution, and a moratorium to the populations listed above as exceptions based on public health.

Esperanza Cantu is manager of Health Equity and Collaboration for Authority Health

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