Triple the Hope — On When Venture Capitalists Pay Water Bills

[It was] the hardest time in my life. I couldn’t wash; I couldn’t clean up. I couldn’t wash dishes. The flushing of the toilet…I didn’t flush it every time. It smelled foul. — Larry in Detroit.

Larry is part of one of nearly 14,000,000 households in the United States that can’t afford its water bills. And what happens when families can’t afford their water bills?

In far too many places such as Detroit and Baltimore, when families can’t afford their water bills, these city-run water companies turn these citizen-customers off. They essentially tell them that because they’re too poor to pay, they aren’t allowed to take a shower, brush their teeth, bathe their kids for school, or flush toilets, in the comfort of their own homes. The water company-customer relationship devolves into one where if you’re too poor to afford your bill, you don’t deserve dignity.

I first learned about this problem in the summer of 2014 and set out to build a way to help people who couldn’t afford their water bills. That original effort was called the Detroit Water Project.

Sadly, three years later families need help with their water bills more than ever. Not too long ago, the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department restarted shut-offs for more than 18,000 residential customers on top of the existing 30–40,000 that were already in need of assistance. The city offers payment plans which often require a substantial upfront payment to enroll. That “assistance” is out of reach for far too many families who can’t quickly come up with $200–300.

At a Detroit Board of Water Commissioners meeting I attended last summer, even the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department director admitted that their assistance programs may not help their most impoverished customers.

But, the shut-offs continue.

I’ve talked to hundreds of people in Detroit, Baltimore, and surrounding areas— all with similarly heartbreaking stories. The family’s husband and breadwinner was laid off and the water was cut off. A wife was stricken with breast cancer and couldn’t work, so the water was cut off. I remember with one of the first families we helped in Detroit, a single mom of three kids was seriously weighing skipping doses of her heart medication to afford her water bill. All of this because you can also lose custody of your kids for not having running water in your home.

Larry went for two months last summer without water at home — even as he fought stomach cancer — until The Human Utility restored his service. That’s not the worst it gets, unfortunately. Some people have gone for a year without running water — resorting to defecating in holes in their backyard or getting drinking water from a neighbor’s water hose. The stories get progressively worse as water shut-offs veer into being a full-blown public health crisis when people who live on blocks where shut-offs occurred have been found to have experienced higher diagnoses of water-related illness.

But, luckily, there’s hope. Through The Human Utility, nearly 1,000 families in Detroit and Baltimore have been given reassurance, encouragement, financial assistance, and most importantly, the knowledge that tons of people give a damn. We got Larry’s water turned back on. We kept Yolanda and her son from drinking from a neighbor’s water hose. We helped Francine keep the water running during her job hunt. You can be a part of that.

In Baltimore, in addition to helping a family keep their water on, you may even be helping families keep their homes. If you don’t pay your water bill in Baltimore, it’s added to your property taxes and your home can be sold in a tax sale. We’ve saved at least 40 families from such a fate.

Owner-occupied homes are especially vulnerable because real estate speculators know that these families are likely to be poor, yet very motivated to stay in their home. Over time, they may end up paying speculators who buy the water bill debt thousands in fees — if they’re not just outright evicted. In 2010, a woman in Baltimore lost her home of nearly 30 years over a $362 water bill. America.

But, by giving a donation this month, you could help a family get their water turned back on (or prevent it from being shut off) in as little as 48 hours.

And giving this month will be especially impactful because your donation will be tripled by the generosity of Fred Wilson, Joanne Wilson, Brad Feld, Amy Batchelor, and Jessica Livingston. Fred, Joanne, Brad, and Amy are matching up to $20,000 in donations on CrowdRise. Jessica is donating up to another $20,000 to support the campaign. They are all successful venture capitalists who’ve funded some of the world’s most enduring and consequential technology companies. But, they also understand fully how technology with a philanthropic bent can be harnessed to help everyday people. We’d love your help.

Special thanks to Hunter Walk at Homebrew for introducing The Human Utility to Fred Wilson and Brad Feld.

Update 6/14/17: This campaign ended up raising $67,147 on CrowdRise.