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Addressing the Links Between Poverty, Housing and Water Access and Affordability in Detroit

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By Sara Hughes, Kathryn Maloney, Anna Kaczmarek, Heather Newberry, and Elizabeth Wallace


Ensuring water access and affordability for Detroit residents is critical. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of universal access to safe and affordable water for public health, as well as the barriers and challenges to this goal created by conditions of high poverty and aging infrastructure. Solving the water access and affordability challenge in Detroit requires engaging with the interactive consequences of an aging system, high levels of poverty, and persistent housing challenges.

Detroit’s median household income ($30,894) is just over half the statewide median ($57,144), and more than one-third of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. At the same time, 41% of the city’s residents face high housing costs, or housing costs that exceed 30% of household income. This number is even higher for renters, with 53% facing high housing costs. The majority of Detroit residents’ homes were built prior to 1950. Coupling an aging and insufficient housing stock with low incomes means residential plumbing issues may often go unaddressed, leading to higher water use and water bills, and eventually preventing access to drinking water all together. In 2018, an estimated 11,000 Detroit residents lacked access to complete indoor plumbing systems—meaning they lacked either hot and cold running water, a bathtub or shower, or a sink with a faucet. A recent study found water bills in Detroit are comparable to other large cities, but the burden is particularly high for Detroit residents due to low household incomes, with the city’s poverty rate sitting more than 2.5 times higher than the national rate. In 2016, 25% of residential water accounts were on a payment plan. Understanding the intersections of poverty, housing quality, and water services in Detroit is a step toward innovative and creative solutions that support public health and community resilience and promote efficiency in water use for the city’s water system as a whole.

This brief evaluates the relationship between poverty, housing needs and burdens, and water access for Detroit residents, placing a particular focus on the need for and impact of plumbing repair efforts. We provide some background on water affordability in Detroit; analyze the impact low incomes, housing costs, and aging homes have on water access and affordability; and explore the potential of plumbing repairs as a cost-saving mechanism, including an analysis of the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP), the primary water assistance program serving Detroit residents. We find significant spatial variation in the location of households experiencing high housing costs and low incomes, which could inform future investment strategies for promoting water savings. Continued investment in residential plumbing repairs, and coordination across departments and between levels of government, will be critical for ensuring universal access to safe and affordable water in Detroit.

Key Findings

  • 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.

Policy Recommendations

While plumbing repairs will not solve Detroit’s water affordability crisis, they are an essential part of the solution. Below are some recommendations for how we can more effectively and efficiently deploy repair resources to generate savings for Detroit residents.

  1. Expand Funding for Residential Plumbing Repairs

Residential plumbing repairs are an effective way to improve water affordability, ensure water access, increase efficiency, and conserve a valuable resource. They can be out of reach for low-income homeowners, and additional funding is needed. Given the high level of need in Detroit, state and federal funding should help to fill the gap.

  • As the federal government considers additional drinking water investments, resources should be available for conservation repairs as well as direct bill assistance.
  • Michigan’s State Emergency Relief funding provides a one-time payment to households but
    is underutilized and insufficient. Increasing the resources available through SER, and revisiting how and when direct assistance is counted as income, can help to ensure that people who need access to resources can apply without penalty and help to broaden the program’s impact.
  • The City of Detroit could explore alternative revenue sources, such as social impact bonds that tie investor returns to desired outcomes.

2. Target Investments to Reach Customers with the Greatest Need

It is important that any assistance program — including assistance for plumbing repairs — be available and accessible to the households that need it most. Plumbing repair funding should target customers with the greatest need and reduce barriers to access. The information provided in this report provides some insight into where these customers may be within the city and could be used to identify “hotspot” neighborhoods in need of investment in plumbing repairs. The goal should be to identify households with the greatest water losses and the least amount of resources available for repairs.

Much of this information can be available through household water billing and data. Finer-grained
analyses, and a better understanding of the context of incomplete and leaky plumbing, can help to target resources. For example, some households will need more help with arrearages to address affordability while others will be better served by reducing monthly water bills going forward; others may have large, emergency plumbing repair needs. Designing flexible programs and funding streams can help optimize spending and ensure sustainable solutions.

More systematic tracking and monitoring of the impact of various types and scales of plumbing repair and upgrade strategies will help to identify investments that have greatest benefit to both customers and the water system. This includes identifying renters in the city who are in need of residential plumbing repairs and ensuring building codes and tenant protections are enforced.

3. Strengthen Coordination between City Departments

Incomplete plumbing and insufficient housing conditions are generating challenges for drinking water access and affordability but are the product of a suite of policy actions and programs. Greater coordination between DWSD, the Detroit Health Department, the Detroit Housing and Revitalization Department, and the Office of Sustainability could help to identify synergistic and innovative strategies for preventing plumbing disrepair and connecting people with the resources that can support safe, affordable, and accessible drinking water services. The Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department has a key role to play in residential building code enforcement. Partnering with local job training programs can help to generate skilled-trades jobs to implement the home audits and plumbing repairs. Collaborative efforts on these issues have emerged in the past through the city’s “efficient housing work group” and the water shutoff pilot interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Revisiting and strengthening coordination efforts can help leverage the resources and expertise needed.

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