FLINT, Mich. — Takeisha Major and her two sons moved into their home on Agree Avenue in East Flint, Mich., on Nov. 1, 2015. By Dec. 11, Major had already received two bills from the city of Flint for water and sewer fees totaling $655.64. She refuses to pay.
“I will not pay to be poisoned,” the 28-year-old Flint native said at her kitchen table Monday evening. “It’s not just me; my children have to live here. I will not pay for my kids to have lead in their blood.”
Less than a month before Major and her boys, ages 2 and 9, moved to their new house, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder ordered Flint to rejoin the Detroit water system, where the city had long gotten its water from before it switched in April 2014 to the Flint River. For more than a year, Flint residents complained about the smell and color of the water, about skin rashes and hair loss.
Several water-boil advisories were issued following positive tests for coliform bacteria (indicating contamination from sewage) and trihalomethanes, which pose a cancer risk. Finally, after the release of two reports in September 2015 showing elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint residents, particularly children, Snyder acknowledged there was a problem with the water.
This month Snyder declared a state of emergency and activated Michigan’s National Guard to distribute bottles of water, filters and test kits to Flint residents. On Jan. 16, President Obama answered the governor’s call to do the same.
Despite all this, Flint residents continue to receive monthly water bills from the city.
And these aren’t your average water bills. Well before the water was contaminated, Flint residents had been paying some of the highest water rates in the country. The average family pays the city of Flint upward of $150 for water every month. It was a financial burden that, for many, had become too much to bear even for clean water. According to Flint attorney Val Washington, who successfully sued the city last August for illegally hiking the price of water 35 percent between Sept. 16, 2011, and Aug.17, 2015, the city placed 21,000 liens against residents’ homes for delinquent water bills.
One of two class-action lawsuits filed last week seeks to prevent any future shutoffs by the city and demands forgiveness of all past and future bills for contaminated water. State Sen. Jim Ananich, a Democrat who lives in Flint, said he is working on putting together a bill-relief program in the Senate that would forgive water bill debts for the past 18 months and extend a credit to people who have been paying. “People shouldn’t have to pay for water that through no fault of their own has been filled with lead,” he said.
At a press conference this week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said, “If you can’t drink the bad water you shouldn’t pay for it,” and a spokesperson for Schuette told Yahoo News that he is “strongly pursuing the water payment situation through his Consumer Protection Division.”
In the meantime, Major is going to keep on not paying.
Like most parents in Flint these days, Major worries about what hazards her children might have been exposed to. She describes her 2-year-old, who’d been consuming and bathing in the Flint River water since he was an infant, as hyperactive and “angry all the time.”
Her 9-year-old, who has autism, has come down with pneumonia three times in the past two years. Since late October, the typically mild-mannered Mekhi has been sent home from school six times for fighting with other kids.
Major doesn’t want it to sound like all of a sudden she’s blaming everything on the water, but with all the reports she’s read lately on the long-term developmental effects of lead poisoning on children, she can’t help but wonder.
“I am scared for my children,” she says, her tough exterior washing away in a well of tears. “It’s irritating because you never know — at any given time your child could be taken away from you by a source of water. Water!”
She said she uses about half a case of bottled water each day just to bathe her kids and brush their teeth. Once or twice a week they’ll take quick showers, just to get clean, but she tries to avoid the water at all costs.
“It makes us feel like we’re not Americans,” she said.
That’s why Major isn’t paying the water bill — and she doesn’t think anyone else in Flint should either.
“If we stand up and stick together, our voices will be heard,” she said.
Dozens of Flint residents made their voices heard during a rally outside City Hall Monday afternoon. Carrying signs with messages like “Arrest Snyder” and “Water is a human right,” protesters enthusiastically tore up copies of their water bills and burned them in a small trash can.
But the gesture was mostly symbolic.
When asked, most of them said they are still paying their water bills out of fear of what might happen if they stopped.
“If you don’t pay it, they’ll put it on your taxes for your house,” said one woman. “And if that don’t get paid, then they put foreclosure on your house.”
“If I don’t pay my water bill, then DHS will take my son away,” said another, referring to the state Department of Human Services — recently renamed the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Her son listened intently at her side.
The latter is a frequent concern expressed by Flint parents who know that under Michigan’s Child Protection Law, a lack of running water is considered a sign of potential child abuse and neglect.
It was precisely this fear that Kiki Phillips says drove her into foreclosure.
Phillips has lived since the early 1990s in the powder blue house with yellow shutters she shares with her disabled mother and 3-year-old daughter, and she recalls a time when the water bill was only $40. But for at least the past five years, Phillips said they’ve been paying over $100 for water each month.
After a while the cost became too much and Phillips decided she had to prioritize her expenses. If nothing else, Phillips said, she would pay the bare minimum necessary to keep the water on “because I got a 3-year-old and my neighbor thinks she works for DHS.”
Eventually, in December 2014, her water balance reached $1,800, which was added onto her taxes. This week Phillips received a notice that her house was going into foreclosure.
Phillips said she doesn’t know how, but she’s determined to come up with the money.
“We gotta rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “It’s ours. I can’t lose it.”
A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services suggested that Flint parents need not worry about the agency coming to remove their children if the water gets turned off. Rather, MDHHS’s interest is in making sure children have access to clean water.
“MDHHS has not assigned a single Children’s Protective Services complaint due to any issues related to Flint water,” MDHHS Children’s Services Agency executive director Steve Yager said in a statement. “MDHHS works proactively to assist families whose water is shut off and to ensure families have water filters and bottled water in Flint. When a family is without water, our goal is to help that family provide clean water for their children. That can be through assisting families in applying for State Emergency Relief, setting up plans for children to access safe water at a relative’s home or providing bottled water. We do not petition the court to remove a child solely for the lack of water in a family’s home.”
On the city’s website Monday, Flint spokesperson Kristin Moore wrote that no shutoff notices have been issued since the beginning of December 2015 and “the City is currently reviewing its policy on shut off notices in light of the declared emergency.”
Major received a shutoff notice on Dec. 15, but she had been waiting to open it.
“It’s due to be shut off [Jan.] 15,” Major said, reading from the salmon pink paper after tearing open the envelope. “We’re past the 15th.”
While she admitted she’s afraid her water will eventually be cut off, Major said she believes the only way anyone will be held accountable for the water crisis is if she and the rest of the people of Flint demand it.
“They’re not just going to give up on the whole city. They only do that if you be quiet about it, if you don’t take a stand,” she said. “As long as we are fighting against this, there is going to be a good outcome. Something is going to happen.”