The economic and social stability of Detroit, Michigan has long been in decline since the fall of the city’s dominant auto industry, which many residents relied on. And the city’s government has failed to keep in step with its declining population and rising levels of poverty. The situation being so dire, that in 2013, Detroit declared bankruptcy because it was an estimated $18 billion in debt.
One of the ways that this has affected the city’s population — which is roughly less than 700,000 and more than 80 percent black — is its handling of water. Recently, lead was found in the water fountains in Detroit public schools, and for years residents have decried the city’s policy of water shutoffs in homes.
In 2014 Tiffani Ashley Bell, a developer and computer science graduate of Howard University, learned of the water crisis and decided she had to act. She found a document on the website of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that laid out all of the past due accounts in the city, along with their addresses and amounts owed. She started connecting donors to clear the accounts of Detroit families.
Since then, she’s created software and a website, called the Human Utility, to streamline the process. She’s also developed partnerships with local organizations in Detroit and expanded the operation to Baltimore.
AfroTech spoke with Bell about how why this is issue so critical in Detroit and elsewhere.
Why is this such a pressing issue in Detroit?
Detroit is kind of the canary in the coal mine around water affordability. There’s a lot of issues around affording it for people. And we’re interested in making sure that, regardless of whether or not you get a bunch of disposable income, you can still afford water.
So, the EPA guidelines, your water bill should be no more than three or four percent of your income per year. But we’ve seen people that are paying like, half of whatever they get each month toward their water bills because they have back bills that they haven’t paid, or because something happened financially, or they couldn’t keep up with the bill and that kind of thing.
How does your background in tech inform the work that you do?
We use tech, basically, to make the process of getting assistance more efficient. If our system was fully integrated, the way it was supposed to, as far as the water company you could basically go to our website, apply for assistance, we ask you for the documentation, we ask for pay stubs and your lease or your deed or your ID. You submit all that stuff via text message. Then we are able to open a connection to the water company. And, once we have everything we need from them, as far as, like, how much you owe, what’s your billing history, and payment histories and stuff like that, we’re able to make an evaluation about whether or not this is someone we should help.
Once that is taken care of our software, internally, is able to wire money to the water company. And then we send them an email notification, it says, you know, hey, we spent $10,000, here are the 20 families to apply it to their account numbers and that kind of thing. And what we did was take a bunch of software that we wrote custom and streamline the process of getting assistance. If everything worked that way, someone could get help in less than 48 hours.
But you know, there are other processes with the state of Michigan. But, it can take up to 10 days to hear back from them and they can totally turn you down. And that happens to a lot of people you talk to. They don’t hear anything at all from the state about getting assistance. It’s mostly a paper process and it’s just not an efficient way of doing things. The welfare system has been designed to make it a hard process so it deters people, but we have the opposite thought process.
Have you partnered with other organizations?
We have an organization called Matrix Human Services that refers people to us and depending on what’s going on they will do the intake process for a person so they’ll be on a computer with them and help them fill out the application. And there’s the Hemophilia Foundation of Michigan that has referred families to us before. I remember there was one mother with two young boys that have hemophilia, and she was sent to us because she had her water shut off.
There are other organizations that refer people to us as well. We also partner with activist organizations like the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, since we aren’t in Detroit. It helps to know what’s going on, on the ground there.
Has there been any one story that’s stuck with you?
There have been quite a few. But one that comes to mind is this woman in Detroit. She had custody of her five or six-year-old granddaughter, and she had a toilet that ran, and it ran up like a $1,400 water bill over time, so they shut her water off. And in order to get it turned back on she needed, like half of that, so $700 and she didn’t have that.
Then a Child Protective Services worker found out that she didn’t have water in the house. And so when that happens, according to the guidelines for child welfare, a house that doesn’t have water, in general, is technically unfit for habitation. So when they found out that this little girl was living in a house with her grandmother that didn’t have water, they took her and put her in foster care. And she’s like, five or six years old and totally realizes that, you know, she’s not living with her grandma anymore. And she doesn’t understand why.
The woman talked about how the child was crying for her. The last time I talked to her which was earlier this year, the little girl was okay. But she was still in foster care. And they were having to go to court and prove that she had, you know, water after we had helped her. But you just think about a kid being put in foster care over a $700 water bill. There is psychic cost of doing that to a kid. And, you know, maybe that’s one of the worse cases I’ve seen but that’s not even counting, like, people having to use the bathroom in their backyards, and holes that they dug and stuff like that. Or like senior citizens we talked to who hadn’t had water in like, a year.
That’s the cascade effect of water bills. You can lose your kids, you can lose your house.
What advice would you offer to someone that wants to build something for people in their community?
I always tell people to pay attention to what’s happening in your local community with people. Go to community meetings to see what people are complaining about, and you’ll start hearing the problems that people have. The other thing you can do is, in addition to sniffing around for those problems, just in your own backyard, is just start with something really small.
We didn’t intend for this to be a whole organization. People just kept needing help, and kept donating, so we just kept it going. We just built a really ugly website to start with, to find people that needed help. And then we matched donors with people that needed help. And everything that’s happened since then wasn’t intended. Again, we just started really small with the easiest thing that we could do. We didn’t even take money from people originally: When you “donated,” what you actually did was, we would give you an account number, and have you go pay on the water company website, and then you would just send us the receipt. And we would send that to the person that got the help. We just started super-duper simple.
Also, when it comes to black people in technology, what gets the most attention is people that are running for-profit startups. But I think black people, and I’m not going to say people of color, I totally mean black people, there are enough of us out there that have the ability to produce things and can do a lot if we just look around for problems like this. Don’t shy away from doing this kind of work. There’s a lot of noble and empowering work that can be done on the social side with tech.