Addressing links between poverty, housing, water access and affordability in Detroit

Source: Michigan News

In a new study, researchers analyzed census data and mapped the overlap between several factors that influence water affordability.

In a new study on Detroit’s access to clean and affordable water, researchers from the University of Michigan found that about 10% of the city’s population is “triple taxed,” meaning those residents face more than average poverty rates, housing costs and incomplete sanitation.

And in some Detroit neighborhoods, up to 10% of homes don’t have full access to water, meaning they don’t have hot and cold running water, a tub or shower, or a sink with a faucet, according to the study funded by UM’s Poverty Solutions initiative.

“It is critical to ensure access to water and affordability for Detroit residents,” said Sara Hughes, an environmental policy analyst at the School for Environment and Sustainability and lead author of the study. “To solve the challenge of water access and affordability in Detroit, you need to address the interactive consequences of an aging system, high levels of poverty and ongoing housing problems.”

Hughes and other researchers from SEAS and UM’s Erb Institute analyzed census data and mapped the overlap between several factors that influence water affordability. They assessed ways in which current actions, while effective, do not meet the scale the city needs to connect residents to clean, affordable water.

In their Poverty Solutions policy letter, the authors also propose strategies to address Detroit’s water safety issues:

  • Increase funding for plumbing repairs. As the federal government considers additional investments in drinking water, funds must be available for repairs and immediate bill assistance.
  • Use city water data to identify target investments, reach customers in greatest need, and reduce barriers to entry.
  • Strengthen coordination between city services. Greater coordination between the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, Detroit Health Department, Detroit Housing and Revitalization Department, and the city’s Office of Sustainability could help identify synergistic and innovative strategies to prevent future systems from decaying.

According to Hughes and her colleagues, Detroit’s median household income ($30,894) is just over half the state average ($57,144), and more than a third of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. At the same time, 41% of city residents face high housing costs – defined as more than 30% of household income – and this number is even higher for renters (53%).

In addition, nearly half of the city’s residents pay more than 3% of their income on water, a common measure of water affordability. Water usage per capita is much lower than the national average, but Detroit residents still have higher water costs.

“The pandemic has highlighted how important it is from a public health perspective that people have reliable access to clean water, hand-washing and other measures that are not possible if you don’t have running water or can’t pay your water bill.” said Hughes. “People also lost wages, making it even harder to keep up with water bills.”

Most Detroit residents’ homes were built before 1950, and some low-income households are in some of the city’s oldest homes, according to Poverty Solutions’ policy letter. These outdated homes are more likely to require expensive repairs that add to the burden of high housing costs.

The report notes that while state and federal programs exist to assist with household energy problems, such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, no similar programs exist for water problems. Water and sewage relief funds for Michigan residents are reserved for emergencies only and are widely underutilized by the state.

For Detroit, programs such as the Great Lakes Water Authority’s Water Residential Assistance Program help customers in low-income areas with water bills and reductions in water consumption. WRAP offers conservation audits to households exceeding 120% of the city’s average water consumption, with a $1,500 cap on repair and maintenance costs.

However, insufficient resources have limited the number of homes WRAP has been able to help, as well as their ability to repair. The report found that “almost all (97%) of the participating households required additional plumbing repairs in addition to those made during the audit.” The total number of homes that WRAP assisted in 2019 was 2,047, which is about half of the total number of households that did not have complete sanitary facilities.

The policy note shows that existing programs, while they offer improvements, are not meeting the number of Detroit households needing help to make substantial repairs.

While plumbing repairs won’t eliminate Detroit’s affordability crisis, they are an essential step toward clean and accessible water, according to the report’s authors.

The other authors of the Poverty Solutions policy brief are Kathryn Maloney, Anna Kaczmarek and Heather Newberry from the UM School for Environment and Sustainability, and Elizabeth Wallace from UM’s Erb Institute.