LANSING, Mich. — Low-income households in Michigan are struggling to pay their water bills and are worried about shutoffs. According to a new study, water prices have been rising while wages have not.
A recent study from the University of Michigan Water Center, in partnership with Michigan State University Extension and Safe Water Engineering, addresses the affordability of water for Michigan households and recommends solutions.
“Without water, then you lack hygiene and the ability to care for your family,” said Jennifer Read, the director of the University of Michigan Water Center.
In Lansing, low-income households spend at least 25 percent of their disposable income on water and sewer bills. Disposable income is the amount of money that remains after paying essential bills, such as rent and food.
“It causes significant challenges. What we have highlighted in the report is that there are folks that struggle with water affordability, in places in rural Michigan, in urban places in Michigan and throughout," said Ritchie Harrison, a specialist with Michigan State University Extension.
Read said that the water crises in Flint and Benton Harbor are not the only issues Michigan residents are facing.
“Water rates for a long time have been held to kind of artificially low… and now we need the resources to pay for infrastructure, but it should not be at the expense of the, you know, folks who have the lowest income in our communities,” Read said.
Water costs have roughly doubled in Michigan since 1980, even after adjusting for inflation. In urban areas, such as Flint and Detroit, they have tripled. Lansing has seen an increase of 187 percent in water and sewer bills.
Read said that shutting off water service is not the solution because “if [families] are found to not have water, that is a reason for community services to really remove children from that situation."
"They're also making the choice to either not pay for their water so they can afford their medication or healthy food or making the hard choice to pay for their water and then they are not buying their medications or something else they need to survive,” she said.
The researchers are asking utilities, state government, and communities to work together on policies that would prohibit water shutoffs, require utilities to engage communities in their decision-making, and provide programs to cover water costs of low-income families, possibly including reduced water rates for those in long-term poverty.
“There is a real federal role at this point in helping fill some of the gaps that are out there in funding,” Read said, adding that, if nothing changes, more and more people will struggle with high water bills, even middle-class families.
The Lansing Board of Water and Light spokeswoman Amy Adamy noted that the utility's water and sewer rates have not increased as quickly as many others and said the utility encourages "anyone who's struggling no matter if it's a pandemic, or not to call us so that we can help put customers on flexible payment arrangements.
"We know that times are hard right now, and it's not something that we enjoy doing is turning off service to our customers. And we want to help give access to resources that are available,” Adamy said.
The Board of Water and Light currently serves 56,000 households in the greater Lansing area. They do not plan on increasing rates again until November of next year.
Detailed recommendations to make water more affordable in Michigan can be found in the study’s assessment.