Help can come from anywhere. And people in Detroit need help. In 2014 the City of Detroit was in the middle of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history and the city aggressively started turning off water to delinquent accounts in a desperate attempt to right the city’s finances. More than 33,000 consumers had their water shut off in 2014 alone. The city is still pursuing past due water bills although The Detroit News recently revealed the water department has shifted focus away from residents and will go after businesses first.
The organization behind the Detroit Water Project attempts to throw a life-preserver to those drowning in unpaid water bills by connecting donors to those in need. This allows homeowners to, in a sense, crowdsource their water bill. Donors can either pay the entire unpaid balance, which can be several thousand dollars, or just part of a bill. Since its launch, the company has expanded to Baltimore with the Baltimore Water Project.
Launching as part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2015 class, co-founder Tiffani Bell said she developed the platform shortly after the widespread outcry of Detroit’s actions. There simply wasn’t a way to directly help, she said. The Detroit Water Project does just that and takes away a lot of the uncertainty around donation programs; all the water bills are verified. It’s a non-profit and the funds are directly paid to the municipal water department. This is about helping other people and not turning a profit.
So far the Detroit Water Project has collected $170,000 for over 900 Detroit families.
Bell says the organization hopes to expand to even more cities and help make water a human right in the United States as there are currently no laws protecting water as a utility unless it’s used for heating.
The City of Detroit also provides assistance to those with unpaid balances. Through a fund with the United Way, residents that qualify can to have the fund pay a portion of the unpaid balance. Over 1,900 applicants have so far qualified, but Alexis Wiley, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff, tells the Detroit News that the fund is underutilized and is attempting to further publicize the program to get more people involved.
The Detroit Water Project shows that there is still room for innovation in helping others. The founders built a platform that bypasses the rigmarole and unnecessary fees generally associated with donating cash. Because help can come from anywhere.