In 2014, Detroit and Michigan received international attention on a water issue, but it wasn’t the spotlight either would have wanted.
The United Nations dispatched an official human rights rapporteur to Detroit to document the harm caused by water shutoffs based on the inability to pay. “There was no water for food or toilets or for care of the elderly or kids, people had to go to public parks and put water in cans,” water rights advocate Maude Barlow told Great Lakes Now in a 2022 interview. Barlow is a former senior adviser to the United Nations on water issues.
Also in 2014, now state Senator Stephanie Chang, a Democrat, had just graduated from the University of Michigan and in 2015 began her first term as a state representative in Michigan’s 6th district. That’s when Chang co-sponsored water equity legislation to “establish clean, drinkable, affordable water as a human right, and reform the shut-off process and assure that water is accessible for Michigan residents.”
The proposed legislation did not become law but for Chang, it was a start. And since 2015, incremental progress has been made toward raising the awareness of the need to end shutoffs and for an affordability plan, she said.
In a recent interview with Great Lakes Now, Chang discussed the early days of trying to secure support from her colleagues on water equity and how the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on water shutoffs. And Chang addressed the financial inequities evident between the substantial state funding that subsidizes businesses like General Motors, compared to minimal funding for water equity.
When she first started to promote water equity legislation, “hardly anyone in the legislature knew what was going on and it wasn’t a priority,” Chang said. Some colleagues were willing to co-sponsor legislation but even they were less familiar with how dire the situation was.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of data became available that revealed the scope of how many people were behind on water bills, and it wasn’t just in urban areas. It was a statewide issue.
The data was compelling, Chang said, and “not everyone had realized that this is a huge statewide problem, no matter where you are there are folks who were obviously struggling during the pandemic and many continue to.”
That led to a December 2020 shutoff moratorium passed in the legislature that Chang emphasized had a Republican led majority. It said a lot about the growing awareness on this issue and it’s been an additional two years since and awareness is still increasing, Chang said. She hopes it will soon lead to the political will that provides long term solutions.
In the recent supplemental budget that was passed, $25 million was authorized for a water shutoff prevention fund to be administered by the state Treasury Department.
Details on the funding were scant and Sen. Sarah Anthony, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, did not respond to a request to comment. Chang estimates the actual need is approximately $100 million and a 2021 University of Michigan study pegged the number between $75 and $145 million, though with recent inflation it could be higher. .
Among the corporate beneficiaries in the budget supplemental is a Swedish-owned paper mill in the Upper Peninsula that will receive $200 million in incentives.
Previously, General Motors had received a combined $824 million in grants and subsidies according to reporting by MLive. In 2022, General Motors reported a profit of $9.9 billion.
Great Lakes Now asked Chang to comment on the funding disparity.
“I’ve been fairly skeptical of some of the economic development proposals in the past and my voting record reflects that,” Chang said. In September 2022, she voted against legislation that would provide $916 million in subsidies to business interests selected by the state agency in charge of delivering special interest business subsidies. The measure passed.
Chang said the $25 million is not enough but it’s a start. There will be other opportunities to secure the additional $75 million in upcoming supplemental budgets and the next fiscal year’s budget.
Elin Betanzo was a part of the University of Michigan led team that produced the 2021 water affordability study. On the funding disparity, she said people who struggle to pay their water bills are focused on basic survival and are likely shut out of a chance at the jobs corporate subsidies might create.
“Governments have a responsibility to protect public health,” Betanzo said. She hopes the $25 million recently provided will lead to a fully funded program. Betanzo founded Safe Water Engineering and was instrumental in exposing Flint’s lead pipe issues early in the crisis.
Where’s Governor Whitmer?
In her State of the State address, Governor Gretchen Whitmer did not mention ending shutoffs or an affordability plan in her list of priorities which included tax cut proposals and universal pre-school.
Whitmer previously campaigned on water equity issues and in her 2018 campaign material under the banner of “Get It Done,” she said she will “work to ensure that everyone has access to a livable quantity of water at an affordable rate.” That pledge included an affordability plan.
When asked if she had spoken to the governor on the need to advance water equity legislation, Chang said “the governor and her office are very aware this is a big priority of mine and I’m sure they know it’s a priority for a number of her allies, environmental groups that have been her champions.” Chang noted that Whitmer was receptive to some amount of funding for shutoff prevention and saw that as a positive.
Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request to comment on potential support for a water affordability plan.
Great Lakes Now asked Chang if Michigan should consider an approach similar to Chicago’s where in 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered a ban on shutoffs for non-payment in her first day in office calling them “heartless.” Shutoffs were later codified in law and an affordability plan followed.
Chang did not comment on the Chicago approach saying she was aware of it but isn’t familiar with the specifics.
From here, Chang said she’s working with water providers, advocates and environmental groups trying to grasp the various proposals and understand what’s needed, what’s doable and come to a consensus. “There’s a lot of interest but now we have to deal with the details and how to make it work,” Chang said.
Chang promised to keep a spotlight on the issue and wants to provide a sense of hope to constituents that “we can finally make water affordability a reality.”
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Featured image: Photo courtesy of Senator Stephanie Change.