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23 July 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 5:31am

A new site lets you help pay Detroit residents’ water bills

A drop in the bucket.

By Barbara Speed

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.

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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.