Congressman John Myers joins protestors in Detroit at Friday’s protest. Photo: Getty
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A new site lets you help pay Detroit residents’ water bills

A drop in the bucket.

It’s now almost a year since Detroit became the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy. One stubbornly persistent hole in its finances comes from the $5.7bn of bad debt its Water and Sewage Department is sitting on. So, city officials have decided to address the problem by letting residents go thirsty.

Since last year, the department has stopped supplying water to around 41,000 households who owe $150 or more: that’s about 100,000 people affected by the shutoffs so far. Many families have turned their water back on illegally, risking further fines if they’re found out.

The reception to this hasn’t exactly been positive. On 25 June, the UN office for Human Rights called on the city government to end the shutoffs, and released a statement saying: “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water.” Meanwhile, a local attorney has filed a class action suit against the city on behalf of residents, claiming that the shut-offs – which fall overwhelmingly on black households – are racially motivated. And last Friday, 2,000 people including the Hulk himself, Mark Ruffalo, took to Detroit’s streets in protest.   

Two women, however, have taken a more digital-first approach to the problem. Last week, Kristy Tillman and Tiffani Bell launched a site called Turn On Detroit’s Water which matches up donors willing to pay part or all of an overdue water bill with those struggling to pay.

Donors sign up by submitting an email address and the amount they’re willing to pledge, while residents enter their water department account information. Bell and Tillman redact residents’ names and pass on the payment information to donors.

According to Bell’s Twitter feed, over 1,000 donors have already signed up:

Both women have also tweeted screenshots of bills successfully or partially paid, implying that the donors have actually come up with the goods.

The site isn’t likely to be a long term solution, especially as the city authorities are planning to raise water prices by another 8 per cent. But for now at least, it may help keep the water flowing. 

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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