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Understanding How Poverty Affects Water Affordability in Detroit

The project: Water affordability and access in the City of Detroit is a growing concern for city officials, area residents, and community groups working in the city. In this project, the researcher will work with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), Office of Sustainability, and the Detroit Health Department (DHD) to examine how the broader context of poverty – specifically housing conditions – affects water affordability for city residents. 

The research completed two aims:

  1. Determine the extent to which undetected leaks in residential homes contribute to unaffordable water bills for low-income Detroit households.
  2. Use the findings to develop policy recommendations for the City of Detroit and other U.S. cities that can address water affordability by focusing on the challenges created by housing conditions.

The process: The researcher analyzed data from DWSD and Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency (Wayne Metro), which provides assistance paying water bills and emergency plumbing repairs. The researcher also interviewed Wayne Metro clients to understand how people experience water conservation and plumbing repair programs. 

Results: The analysis revealed that around 10% of Detroit’s population lives in census tracts that are “triple burdened” by higher-than-average rates of housing cost burden, incomplete plumbing, and poverty. Key findings include:

  • The intersection of poverty and housing quality presents a challenge for ensuring water access and affordability in Detroit.
  • Existing plumbing repair supports in Detroit have benefits for residents’ water bills and water use.
  • Increased funding for plumbing repairs, improved tracking and monitoring of performance outcomes, and coordination between city departments can support efficient and affordable water services in Detroit.

Sara Hughes, U-M School for Environment and Sustainability