I hate to complain, but I haven’t had water in a year. A Detroit story.

Litha Akins prepares water to boil for cooking. She’s an occupant of one of 9,500 homes the City of Detroit disconnected for nonpayment last year that remained off as of Jan. 15. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

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DETROIT— No matter how weary life becomes, Litha Akins prides herself on keeping a nice home: framed photos of better days on the mantle; ribs in the oven; freshly cleaned floors and candles for comfort.

Housework is hard, though, without running water — and Akins owns one of the roughly 9,500 homes in Detroit that city records indicate remain without water after the city disconnected them for nonpayment last year.

So every day since April, the 56-year-old with lung disease said she fills up jugs from a neighbor’s home to bathe, cook and drink, while praying regularly for relief.

“I can’t keep living like this,” Akins told Bridge Magazine last week from the living room of her house on the city’s west side. “I hate to complain, but nobody should live without water for this long. I’ve been lugging water for so long, my arms are ready to fall off.”

Akins’ plight is far from unique in a payment-collections campaign that has disconnected service to 141,000 Detroit residential accounts since it began in 2014, according to water records obtained by Bridge through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. 

Last year, shutoffs spiked to 23,473, up 44 percent from 2018 when there were 16,295. As of Jan. 15 of this year, 37 percent of those disconnected accounts still didn’t have service.

 

And even those whose water was reconnected had to wait nearly a month, 29 days on average, according to analysis from Bridge. Less than 1 percent of shutoffs —  a total of 50 last year — were turned back on in a week or less.

The analysis comes as the Detroit City Council prepares to ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a public health crisis emergency and stop shutoffs for needy residents, a move first reported by The Detroit News. The ACLU of Michigan made a similar request to Whitmer in January. 

Detroit officials say the disconnections are necessary to enforce payment in a city where nearly a third of customers didn’t pay bills before 2014. They say disconnections have improved collections to more than 94 percent,

Gary Brown, director of the Water and Sewerage Department, said the city has expanded programs to help residents and last year reached out to 47,000 customers to avoid disconnections, while enrolling 17,000 over the past few years in repayment or assistance programs. 

 

“DWSD is continuing to work with community leaders to address the gaps,” Brown said. “We agree that more work needs to be done.”

The city can’t afford to stop shutoffs, though, because doing so would raise bills astronomically for the working poor, Brown said. 

“We must look at affordability plans that do not shift the full burden while addressing the need,” Brown said.

Although city records show 9,500 homes shut off last year still lack water, Brown said internal records indicate about more than half of those homes may be vacant or illegally receiving service. 

That puts the number of occupied customer homes without water at 4,000, more than all the homes in Petoskey in northern Michigan.

Whatever the number, the fact that thousands of residents are living without running water in Detroit doesn’t surprise activists who have fought Detroit for years over the disconnections.

 

“The entire approach of the city toward shutoffs is based on faulty assumptions,” said Mark Fancher, an attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, which has sued unsuccessfully to stop the shutoffs.

“They presume that when someone gets their water shut off it’s because of a one-time financial problem, and once they get help, they can get back on the tap. The problem is most people can’t afford bills, period, because the bills are simply too high.”

‘People have it worse’

Detroit’s average water bill is about $75 a month or about 10 percent of Akins’ monthly income from Social Security. That doesn’t include sewage fees, which add another $27 per month to her tab even though her water is off.

The bulk of the $733 in assistance that Akins receives each month, $500, goes to repay Wayne County for back taxes on her brick duplex on Taylor Street.

Akins said she’s endured one misfortune after another since her husband, Doyle, was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. He took care of the bills, and before he died in May 2019 the house went into tax foreclosure and the water was shut off. The bill now totals $6,300.

Litha Akins has endured one misfortune after another since the illness and death of her husband, Doyle, last year. She said she bathes by heating water and taking sponge baths. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

“I’ve been so depressed. I almost had a nervous breakdown,” said Akins, who moved to Detroit eight years ago with her husband from Texas to take care of his now-deceased mother and has no relatives in Michigan. “I wish I could just find another house and move on.”

I've been so depressed ... I wish I could just find another house and move on."
Litha Akins, a Detroiter who lives without water

Nearly 4 in 10 Detroit residents live in poverty, and city officials point out that paying for water is typically just one of many issues they face.

Akins’ furnace broke, so she’s stayed warm this winter with space heaters, running her gas stove continuously and draping heavy blankets on windows and door frames. She bathes by heating water on a stove, carrying it to her bathtub and taking sponge baths.

Her water bill spiked because of a leak in the basement, where an inch of standing water remains.

“I’ve been going through some stuff,” Akins said. Informed of her situation by Bridge Magazine, water officials said they reached out to her Friday and her water will soon be restored. A review of city records revealed a host of issues with the account including problem with a meter.

Cases like Akins are one reason the water department is now partnering city health and human services officials, officials said. 

“She’s struggling with more than water service,” Brown told Bridge.

‘Into the abyss’

The city’s relief programs mostly work to avoid shutoffs, rather than help those whose water already is disconnected. Last year, 854 homes were disconnected multiple times, according to records reviewed by Bridge.

“People are hurting. People are out there in the cold because of shutoffs,” said Regina Williams, 60, who lives on Detroit’s west side and entered into a payment plan this month to avoid a disconnection over a $2,000 bill.

More help could be on the way, Brown said.

Water officials will soon ask the suburban Great Lakes Water Authority to increase the amount of assistance to Detroit residents to $5 million from $2.4 million for the Water Residential Assistance Program, an income-based program that provides up to $1,000 per household.

It was created when Detroit leased its water system to the suburban authority during bankruptcy proceedings. The 40-year deal calls for the authority to pay Detroit $50 million per year to help repair the city’s 2,700-mile network of pipes that serves about 4 million customers. 

Last year, the program helped residents avoid 897 shutoffs, according to city records. That’s 2 percent of the 44,048 accounts eligible for disconnections last year because they were 60 days behind or owed $150 or more.

City officials said 3,300 total residents are enrolled in the WRAP program, while another 14,000 households are in repayment plans. 

Brown called the help “compassionate and robust.” Water activist Monica Lewis-Patrick called the programs an “abysmal failure.”

She is president and CEO of We the People of Detroit, which delivers water to those whose service is shut. Last week, a family with 16 people in one house sought help from her group because water was disconnected after a landlord didn’t pay the bill, Lewis-Patrick said.

“It’s getting to the point where we’re having to rethink the vehicles we need to transport water because the need is so great,” she said.

“It’s not like people are being reckless. They can no longer afford the increases in water… and if you are shut off, there is no pathway to restoration. We’re talking tens of thousands of people going into the abyss.”

They’re people like Ricky Reynolds, who bought a home late last year for $3,000 on the city’s far west side near Dearborn.

Ricky Reynolds bought a Detroit home last year for $3,000. He said he had no idea it came with a water bill of nearly $20,000. “Who can pay that?” he asked. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

He said he spent weeks painting, repairing drywall and restoring floors. Reynolds said he was shocked this month to receive his first water bill: nearly $20,000, presumably from a prior owner.

“How could anyone use this much water? You see this bill,” Reynolds told Bridge last week.

“I can’t pay that. Who can pay that?”

‘Shutoffs are effective’

The shutoffs are increasing as Detroit is pressed for money, trying to maintain a 100-year-old system amid declining usage. 

Average daily consumption dropped 32 percent systemwide from 2000 to 2014 because of increased conservation, plumbing efficiencies and the region’s decline in manufacturing that used a lot of water, according to city documents. New state laws requiring the replacement of all lead pipes following the Flint water crisis could cost the city $500 million over the next 20 years.

Stacey Isaac Berahzer, a Georgia-based water utility consultant, said municipalities nationwide rely on shutoffs for one reason.

“They’re effective,” she said. “When there’s a threat looming over you, you pay if you can. The humanitarian side of it is different, but from a water utility perspective, they’re effective.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan controls the water department and supports the shutoffs, so the City Council is pleading to Whitmer who has the authority to take unilateral action if the situation is deemed a health crisis. 

The council is citing an increase in water-borne illnesses, but Detroit’s Health Director Denise Fair released a statement saying the city “has found no association between service interruptions and an epidemic of any reportable communicable disease.”

A 2017 study that made that found an association between shutoffs and illnesses was so controversial that one of its own authors, a Henry Ford Global Health Initiative doctor, Marcus Zervos, disassociated himself from the findings before they were released and accused activists of twisting “preliminary findings” for “political purposes.”

“We encourage any Detroiter at risk of service interruption to contact the Water Department immediately to get connected to programs that can assist,” Fair said in her statement.

 

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, said the governor doesn’t “want to speculate on a resolution that we haven’t received yet.”

Shutoffs and tradeoffs

Any pause in shutoffs likely would impact Detroit’s bottom line as it emerges from bankruptcy.

In Chicago, water collections dropped $20 million this year after a new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, ordered a halt to shutoffs, according to the Chicago Tribune.

And Detroit is far from the only city to use shutoffs for collections: Nationwide, some 15 million residents endured a shutoff in 2016, according to a report from the nonprofit Food and Water Watch. 

That’s largely because water and sewer bills are increasing three times the rate of inflation each year. Michigan State University researchers in 2017 found water bills are unaffordable — more than 4.5 percent of household income — for 12 percent of all homes nationwide and will be for 36 percent of homes in five years if rates continue to rise at their current pace.

Berahzer, the water consultant, helped draft a 2018 mission statement by the American Water Works Association trade group that urges utilities to adopt affordability programs to “allow low-income households to have access to utility services.”

More communities are following suit, but the money has to come from somewhere, she said: In most cases, that means raising rates for the customers who can pay. 

That was the case in Philadelphia, which in 2017 steered $18 million to a program that caps what impoverished residents pay at a portion of their income. 

Since then, 20,000 residents have applied, said Robert Ballenger, an attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia who helped create the program.

“This is novel for the water industry,” Ballenger told Bridge.

“It’s not novel for utilities overall, which have had regulations for years that bills should be affordable based on income. It’s just that the need for water was never as significant when the bills were $35 a quarter, as opposed to now, when they’re $75 a month.”

Ballenger called the program “an important first step,” but he acknowledged they’ve done little to quell the flood of shutoffs in Philadelphia. 

The city still averages about 33,000 per year, even with the extra assistance. That’s 10,000 more a year than Detroit, a city with nearly 1 million fewer residents.

‘I have my pride’

On the west side of Detroit, Akins soldiers on. What’s the alternative, she asked on a recent day.

“I know how to survive. If people come into my house, they wouldn’t know I didn’t have water,” she said. “I have my pride.”

And her sense of humor. 

Speaking to a Bridge reporter, she joked and laughed about the stress of the past year causing her to go gray and lose her good looks, and offered whatever food she had.

“I know I have it better than others because God is good,” Akins said, wiping a tear. “I don’t mean to complain. I’ve just been doing this for a long time. And it’s hard.”

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Comments

Mark
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 6:34am

A lot things here and we shouldn't be blinded by compassion. Blame the residents for decades of choosing not to pay water bills and now there exists this problem of some the truly needy needed assistance. Also, how much does the choice of Generational Comfortable Poverty play a role. Now the Detroit Water Dept wantsto more than double the Assistance from outside Detroit Water Payers to subsidize their problem.

A 56 year old and appears not to have a dime to her name. $750 in Social Security at 56 years old indicates Disability, moved with her husband to Detroit just 8 years ago in their 40s.

Beulah Walker
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 6:41am

Thank You for Writing this Article

Matt
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 7:58am

How is the water bill different from the gas and electric bills? I notice 3 burners running and the lights are on so I assume these get paid.? Why the gas and electric but not the water?

William Hammond
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 8:59am

There is no excuse for the abysmal time to turn water back on for residents who have made arrangements or paid their bills. In my opinion it IS a health problem to not have running water. That has been a criterion for taking children from their parents’ homes for years until the water Crisis in Flint forced CPS to revise their criterion. And City Code enforcement often used it for a standard for issuing a condemnation order for house but that standard has also been abandoned.

The high cost of water remains a problem and is one of the direct reasons for Flint’s Water Crisis. Flint has always paid the highest rates DWSD (now GLWA) charged as we were the furthest from their source (Lake Huron, just north of Port Huron) and the highest elevation. Separating from the Detroit system was viewed as a way to lower Flint’s water costs. A Federal Judge eventually ruled that Flint MUST enter into a 30 year contract with GLWA which was also awarded Flint’s portion of the KWA (Karegnondi Water Authority) Pipeline. Flint must also pay for a 33% share of the KWA pipeline to the tune of $7M/year for which the City is reimbursed by GLWA. I am unsure what Flint pays for water to GLWA per year but I believe it is over $20M.

The KWA is slated at some point to become Flint’s backup. That will resolve a more than 50 year old need for a Back-up pipeline to the GLWA (formerly DWSD) pipeline.

The high cost of water to Michigan residents (Detroit & Flint especially) must be addressed. There is no excuse in a State surrounded by the Great Lakes for our water costs to be so high. And it is Criminal in my mind to disconnect poor people!!

Arjay
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 9:15am

Michigan, surrounded by 20% of the world’s fresh water charges almost double what Florida charges where the aquifer is being strangled by the influx of 400,000 new residents per year.

Doug L
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 10:04am

The article briefly mentions Mr. Reynolds, who received a $20,000 water bill at a property he recently purchased. Does the city actually expect a new owner to pay for previous owners bills? Is it even legal to do that without filing a lien against the property? Additional information on this situation would be helpful.

Matt
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 7:56am

Water bills are attached as a lien to the property Mr Reynolds didn't buy property through title company or this would have shown or they, the title co would have eaten it. The is the crap that constantly goes on in the underclass cash economy.

Karen G.
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 5:37am

I agree with previous comment from Doug , is the new home owner expected to pay the outrageous bill from previous owner?

Charleen snead
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 8:27am

Yes when purchasing a new home either through land contract or Detroit land bank the water bill come with the homes. And new owner are responsible for payment of them.

Jacki S
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 3:26pm

I lived in Highland Park when the city's bill became $25 million + dollars. I paid my water, but the city used my money for other things. They also didn't pay the electric bill either for city lights and DTE scrapped our metal light poles for partial payment. Who do you think paid those bills????- my rates increased and extra charges were added. Activists have the attitude that water, heat , lights an housing are a "human right" and the residents gripe because their financial priorities are elsewhere not on keeping their roof over their head. Then get (2) 5 gallon jugs and go own by the river for your free water. Gather wood for a fire to keep warm, use candles and live in a big cardboard box. Those that pay their bills already pay for your phone, internet, water, light , heating and housing assistance and your still not satisfied . I have responsibility for myself- I am not claiming "victimhood".

Pebbles
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 8:42pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts... I love the fact that you speaking of all people and you just read my mind so I thank you for saying all those things and making it come true

Bones
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 12:42pm

I read things like this, and wonder what the point of building a society was if not to help each other. Instead, we've an entire class of myopic sociopaths who've been conditioned to hate the poor and deny them basic human needs. You disgust me

Matt
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 6:19pm

So expecting people to pay for things they use is evil? How's that work? Where?

Bones
Mon, 02/24/2020 - 5:53pm

No, I expect basic human needs to be facilitated through communal support, you dissembling hack

N. Stanley
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 4:54pm

This is a health as well as a human rights issue. Detroit will never become a world-class City as long as its citizens are living at the same standards of third-world countries. Detroit do better.

N. Stanley
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 4:54pm

This is a health as well as a human rights issue. Detroit will never become a world-class City as long as its citizens are living at the same standards of third-world countries. Detroit do better.

NuttyPastard
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 5:48pm

Pay yo bills!!

Dave
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 7:41pm

Isn't it about time some of these "activists" start working toward a solution instead of a bandaid? With an income of $750 a month, and back taxes of $6300 there are much bigger problems here than a water shut off. What happens when the roof leaks, or the furnace won't run? Clearly she can not afford to maintain a home on that income. There are low income apartments out there for people with her problems that might be workable, mathematically, she has no business owning a home and will eventually bring down every one else's property values. There is no constitutional right to stay in a home you can't afford, this compassionate thing in this case would be subsidized housing, not free water.

Debbie
Thu, 02/20/2020 - 9:47pm

It's always easy to come up with a solution or ask why someone can't pay their bills older people on disability or fixed income just can't Scott the bills anymore and if you have health problems it's worse I'm one of those people not in Michigan unfortunately we are everywhere. Something has to be done or older people will be on the streets too

Nan
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 7:51pm

Why doesn't someone help her do step forward program for her taxes ?

Valerie
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 2:20pm

What is the best place to give a donation to in order to try to help? "We the people of Detroit" or a different place? I'm heartbroken over the plight of Detroit residents.

Sarah
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 5:04pm

I started a GoFundMe for her after reading this article. Ignoring all the people who think that all things are equal and someone just isn't trying hard enough. Water is a human right. You literally need it to live. Clean water is by proxy. I live in Philly, I do not know this woman, I just know that she represents one person suffering from systemic flaws, and I'd like to help her out.

https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-litha-akins-get-running-water?utm_source...

Todd
Tue, 02/18/2020 - 3:30pm

Get a job. That might help.

Vcastillo
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 1:15am

For Ricky Reynolds: He needs to sue the title company! If he closed with a title company then they were supposed to provide a clear title, which should have made sure that all the liens were gathered on the house before closing; they clearly didn’t do their due diligence, so he needs to go to them first and foremost (that water bill—if from a previous owner—would have been eventually been placed as a lien on the house and 100% should have been included in closing costs). The water company is going after him because he’s going to be the easiest target! So upsetting!

Scott
Fri, 02/21/2020 - 7:30pm

Water main leaks all over, and they know about them and choose not to fix them. Who pays for the treatment of this water that is wasted? Every single person who pays for city water. Water leak on Wyoming Ave at the railroad tracks has been pouring water out for months.

WRTolkas
Tue, 02/25/2020 - 12:41am

"I have my pride." If you had any pride you would not be living in detroit.