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Coronavirus Pandemic Changes Detroit's Water Shut-Off Policy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The $900 billion coronavirus aid package out of Congress includes funding for low-income households that need help getting water. This is a big issue in Detroit, where officials recently committed to ending the city's water shutoffs, at least until 2022. From member station WDET, Eli Newman reports on how the pandemic brought a change in policy.

MONICA LEWIS-PATRICK: All right, water warriors.

ELI NEWMAN, BYLINE: It's a cool day in Corktown. Volunteers are unloading packages of water bottles from a blue Absopure truck as they get ready to deliver them to residents across the city. They're with We the People of Detroit. Monica Lewis-Patrick has led the group over the last six years.

LEWIS-PATRICK: Because what we know is that since 2014, over 161,000 households have been shut off from water in the city of Detroit.

NEWMAN: Lewis-Patrick says she was not surprised about the collision of two public health emergencies - water shutoffs and the coronavirus pandemic.

LEWIS-PATRICK: You've had decades of divestment and oppression and capitalistic agendas taking precedence over people. So we're not shocked in Detroit.

NEWMAN: On March 9, the day before Michigan reported its first case of COVID-19, officials in Detroit suspended the city-led shutoffs over health concerns, and they announced a plan to restart water at homes. Detroit Water Department Director Gary Brown says since then, 1,300 occupied homes have had their service restored. And now the city has enough funding to keep the water on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY BROWN: We are continuing the moratorium through 2022 while we work on a permanent water affordability solution at the state and federal level.

NEWMAN: Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib says she is pleased that Congress' coronavirus relief package includes $638 million in water assistance, but she wants the measures to go further. Tlaib estimates 15 million Americans experienced a water shutoff before the pandemic. Officials in Detroit are still exploring what the federal aid means for its local relief efforts. But not everyone is convinced about the plan to stop the water shutoffs. Monica Lewis-Patrick says the city does not have to wait two years.

LEWIS-PATRICK: We're cautiously optimistic, but we are waiting to see the proof in the pudding.

NEWMAN: Demeeko Williams leads Hydrate Detroit, another water accessibility group. He says he won't be satisfied with the solution unless it includes water relief amnesty.

DEMEEKO WILLIAMS: You erase the debt clean and you zero out all the residents, homeowners that have high water bills back to zero so that we can start over.

NEWMAN: President-elect Joe Biden has said that no one should have their water shut off during the pandemic. But the issue is still pervasive in Detroit. Officials say, despite relief, 18,000 households in the city still regularly struggle to keep their water running.

For NPR News, I'm Eli Newman in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "NEW FRONTIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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