Flint Residents Could Lose Their Homes Over Massive Bills for Poisoned Water

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Flint Residents Could Lose Their Homes Over Massive Bills for Poisoned Water

Auditi Guha

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's (R) decision to end water relief credits for Flint residents could cost local families their homes, as some pay upwards of $600 per month for poisoned water.

Residents of Flint, Michigan, still don’t have clean water after three years and more than $100 million in aid. What they do have are chronic ongoing health issues, overdue bills, water shutoffs and notices warning they could lose their homes.

The city recently mailed letters to more than 8,000 households that have not paid the bills for their poisoned water, which is the priciest in the country, threatening to put tax liens on their properties.

Activist and Flint resident Melissa Mays received her notice in the mail last month. It lists an outstanding balance of $2,057.17 and the city wants her to pay $891.60 by May 19. After this date, the letter states, “all outstanding balances will be declared delinquent and the lien will be placed against the property on the next tax roll.”

Living in Flint since 2009, Mays and her family have felt the brunt of the water crisis that developed after Michigan officials switched the city’s water source in 2014 to save money without implementing the anti-corrosion treatments to protect the water from lead and other contaminants. This ballooned into an epic man-made public health crisis that has residents battling lead poisoning, e.coli, Legionnaires’ disease, and a spike in pneumonia cases three years later. Twelve people died and almost 90 fell sick during a 2015 Legionnaires outbreak, CNN reported.

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Since the water crisis came to light in 2015, families like Mays’ have depended on bottled water and faced rising bills for water they can’t drink, cook with, or even bathe in. In March, the city announced water shutoffs for those with outstanding dues.

The Mays family is now faced with the possibility of losing their home.

Many residents like Mays stopped paying the astronomical bills in the wake of the Flint water crisis on the principle that they were not going to pay for their poison. Initially, Michigan subsidized the payments to help Flint residents and businesses pay their water bills and help the city pay for the treated Detroit drinking water it receives from the Great Lakes Water Authority.

Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder terminated water relief credits this spring, which is why the city is demanding payment, Mays told Rewire in an email.

“They need the revenue, I understand that. But this puts the burden of these costs back on the residents. Once again, the victims of the state-created water crisis have to foot the bill for the state’s mistakes,” she said. “It’s wrong. It’s extreme. And it’s not how you treat a traumatized community, but the state continues to show that it has no remorse for what it has done to Flint.”

In April 2015, the city sent 5,503 letters for water/sewer charges over six months in arrears that totaled more than $3.3 million. It recently mailed 8,002 letters for two years’ worth of bills totaling more than $5.8 million in delinquent water and sewer charges, according to a May 5 press release.

City officials said the process involving the lien transfer to tax bills is routine and has been performed for years following a 1964 city ordinance. It was suspended last year because of the state water credits subsidizing residents’ water bills.

In Michigan, a lien is created when water is provided to a property. If payments are not received by May 19, the liens will automatically transfer to the tax bill and be combined with the property tax balance. Residents would have until February 28, 2018, to pay the balance, but after February 2018, the liens will be transferred to the county treasurer for collection, the release stated.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said she sympathizes with residents, but the city has to follow the law as established by the ordinance.

“I understand the concerns that have been raised and I am working to see if any changes or something can be done to help those affected by this, especially given the extraordinary circumstances we have endured due to the water crisis,” she said in a statement.

A new lawsuit accuses Weaver of siphoning water crisis donations to her personal Political Action Committee (PAC), the Flint Journal reports.

Public service announcements and postcards are being sent to residents this week informing them that the city recommends it stay with the Great Lakes Water Authority and use Genesee County as its backup water source. This is the cheapest option and would protect public health, and give people with low incomes access to an assistantship program to help pay their bills, officials said.

More than 40 percent of Flint’s 98,300 people live in poverty and more than 60 percent are people of color, according to the U.S. census. Many families in Genesee County are poor, undocumented and often don’t understand the English notices they receive, said Juani Olivares, president and CEO of the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative Centro Informativo La Placita Information Center.

“It is harder for an undocumented immigrant to receive any sort of help from the beginning but much harder when there is a disaster,” she told Rewire in an email. “Our families … have been facing shut offs in the last week or so. Because everything is still being sent in English, our families don’t know what is happening. Some of our families have been served with a shut off notice by a police officer … and right after the City of Flint shuts off their water without giving them time to seek assistance.”

There are families and seniors facing water shutoffs and high bills. When the state water credits ran out, their bills leaped from zero to almost $600 a month. Latino families have to now choose among paying rent, energy bills, and bills for water that they cannot use.

Olivares said she doesn’t know if any of these families have received the latest notices—most of them rent their homes—but she suspects they soon will.

“It is completely insane to be dealing with water shut offs and tax liens for water that can’t be used. We are already paying extremely high fees, and to add this is just going overboard,” she said.