November 21, 2015

Dry Homes

The issues of water shut-off is very closely tied with tax foreclosure. For one thing, poor families who have a hard time keeping up with their taxes may also struggle to pay their water bill. Beyond that, unpaid water accounts have been used to place a lien on a property that can force it into tax foreclosure. And at the highest level, both water shutoffs and tax foreclosure are large-scale drivers of displacement that have forced many thousands of Detroiters out of their homes and out of the city altogether.

Here are just three examples of how water shutoffs have affected families in the Tricycle Collective.

  1. Ms. Coleman’s water was shut off in the summer of 2014 along with tens of thousands of others Detroiters. She was a renter and her lease stated that the water was the responsibility of the landlord but when the water was shut off, she was the one who suffered. She was told her only recourse was to get on a payment plan to pay off the $8000of accumulated debt that she was not responsible for. She put the account– and the debt– in her name but wasn’t able to keep up with the payment plan and now has gone without water for almost 2 years. In the fall of 2014, her home went into auction for tax foreclosure. She could have bought the home for $500 but had no knowledge of the opportunity so the auction came and went with no bidders. Her house passed into possession of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which has been in the process of creating a policy for how to deal with the thousands of occupied homes that it owns for over a year. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will not open up an account for Ms. Coleman unless she has a deed, or a lease from the owner. The owner is the Land Bank, and they have not signed an agreement giving her permission to open up an account (we made a sample one- “all you have to do is sign!” with no result). So she waits, relying on donated bottles of water from a local advocacy group. Ms. Coleman is a retiree, a grandmother and a respectable woman who deserves better. She recalls drawing water from the well when she was a child and wouldn’t mind not having running water if for the fact that she knows she could have it and deserves to have it but is being denied it through red tape, apathy and rules that put money before people.
  2. Ms Watson is a 26 year old single mother who lives with her mother and 4 children in a rental house on the west side until it went up for auction this year. The landlord was responsible for paying water, but did not keep up with the bills. Just before the auction, their water was shut off with no notice (usually notices go to the address of the account holder, not the physical address where the shut off will happen). Due to her mother’s medical condition, they were able to get the water turned back on for 21 days. If they didn’t come up with the 50% down payment on the unpaid water bills (which added up to over $2000), their water would be cut off, which is exactly what happened last week. The good news is that Ms. Watson just bought her home in the auction, with our help,  so she can open a new account in her name. The bad news is that the deeds were not issued. Ms. Watson’s mom still had the same medical conditions but there would be no more benevolent acts on the part of the water department, not even considering the 8 month old baby that needs water for formula. We were able to expedite the deed, sit through the tedium of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and open up a fresh new water account with a $ZERO balance. The water was turned on later that day and they celebrated with hot showers.
  3. When the Esters family moved into their home, it had been stripped of its plumbing and appliances. In the short period between the death of Ms. Esthers’ grandfather and the time they moved in, $4000 worth of water had flooded the basement. Those unpaid water bills were too much to pay on top of repeated thefts, lob loss, and the unexpected adoption of their two children. The unpaid water bills were treated like delinquent taxes and the house went up for auction last year. They were the first family in The Tricycle Collective and thankfully managed to save their home. But life is still expensive and work is hard to find– last week, they watched from their yard as a woman pulled up to their house, ran up the stairs, and dropped a water shut off notice in their doorknob without received making eye contact. It’s never really over until the water is affordable.

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