As shutoff season approaches, pushing for affordability, not assistance

April 27, 2018

Marian Swain

While many of us are celebrating the start of spring, water affordability advocates are bracing themselves for the onset of another water shut-off season. Water utilities in Northern cities refrain from conducting water service shutoffs during the winter months, but the season typically starts up again in April or May and lasts through October. This year, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is expected to begin sending shut-off notices to residents with overdue bills starting next week, on May 1. 

As of this month, DWSD reports that there are 18,107 residential customers in Detroit who are eligible to have their water service shutoffs because they are behind on their bills. Last year, more than 17,000 Detroiters experienced water shut-offs, according to the Detroit Free Press. In 2014, a peak year, more than 33,000 households experienced shutoffs.

Activists are already rallying against the expected shutoffs and repeating calls for DWSD to do more to help residents who are buried under water debt. DWSD runs a Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) program, which offers qualified low-income customers a $25 monthly credit towards their bills and freezes the past due amount for those with water debt. While this program can provide some relief to struggling low-income customers, WRAP has historically had an enrollment backlog and customers have reported being kicked off for missing payments. Advocates argue that assistance programs are not effective and that water service must move towards an income-based approach. 

The distinction advocates draw is between assistance and affordability. Assistance refers to programs like Detroit’s WRAP, which offer bill credits, payment plans, or debt freezes. Affordability, however, refers to programs that set the water bill for low-income customers based on the household’s actual ability to pay, for example by limiting the water bill to 2 percent of a household’s income. 

Philadelphia is the first and only major city in the US to implement a true water affordability program that follows this income-based approach. The Tiered Assistance Program passed the city council unanimously in 2015 and went into effect in summer of 2017. Water rates are capped at 2 to 3 percent of household income for customers living at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level and enrollees are protected from shutoffs. 

Philadelphia’s affordability program has served as a lodestar for advocates working on this issue in other cities, but it has been met with resistance in Detroit. DWSD officials continue to cite legal reasons why they believe affordability programs would not be allowed in Michigan, even though these arguments have been refuted by legal experts (read more in our previous blog post on this subject). 

As the next shutoff season looms, low-income Detroit residents are still stuck with an assistance program that has left thousands vulnerable to shutoffs each year. Water shutoffs are devastating to the households that experience them, but they are also a public relations nightmare for utilities. Income-based affordability programs offer a pathway for utilities and residents to de-escalate the tension in their relationship and issue bills that people can actually afford to pay. However, this type of program remains a distant hope for Detroiters who receive a shutoff notice on their door hanger next week. 

Image credit: Detroit Free Press

Additional infromation can be found in J.B. Wogan's article, The Cost of Water Is Rising. Philadelphia Has an Unprecedented Plan to Make It More Affordable, via