Melissa Mays hasn’t had clean water in her home for more than three years. She drives from Flint, Michigan, to a nearby town to do her family’s laundry, her family exclusively drinks bottled water, and her children have stopped showering on weekends.
Last Friday, she received a letter informing her she could lose her home if she doesn’t pay her water bill.
“This amount must be paid no later than May 19, 2017 at the City of Flint. Thereafter, all outstanding balances will be declared delinquent and a lien will be placed against the property on the next tax roll,” the letter read.
Mays and more than 8,000 other Flint residents received these letters because of past due water bills, a local NBC affiliate reported. Mays’ outstanding balance is $2057.17, and if she doesn’t pay the city at least $891.60 by May 19, a lien will be placed on her home.
JuAnn Marshall, another Flint resident, told The Daily Beast she’s received multiple letters telling her she owes the city $1,200 despite having purchased her home—which she described as a “fixer upper”—for just $8,000 in March.
Marshall said she hasn’t had running water in her home since moving in this March. “I had a leak, so I had the water turned off at the main line so it wouldn’t run into my home. I didn’t know I was getting billed $84 and some change every month even though the water wasn’t running,” she said.
Flint began sourcing its water from the contaminated Flint River in 2014, then switched back to using Detroit’s water system in October 2015 after high lead levels were detected in children’s blood and the Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency. Federal officials deemed the city’s tap water safe to drink if point-of-use filters were used in June 2016.
The state previously provided Flint residents with credits for their water bills, but Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced the state would begin phasing out water subsidies in February. Shortly afterward, the city began shutting off water service for households with unpaid utility bills.
“I said, fine, shut off my poison and I’ll just live on bottled water,” Mays told The Daily Beast. “I’ll pay the sewer fee so we can flush our toilets, and that’s it. But they can also shut off your water, take your sewers, and take your home. They can condemn your home!”
Although the lead content in the city’s water dropped below the federal limit in January and the state government plans on replacing 18,000 contaminated water lines over the next three years, Mays and other activists say lead is just one of Flint’s many water troubles.
Researchers from the Flint Area Community Health and Environmental Partnership recently found that the free filters provided to Flint residents—which successfully filter lead out of tap water—are a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria.
Last year, Genesee County saw 76 confirmed cases of shigellosis, which is caused by drinking contaminated water. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain, but more severe infections can lead to arthritis, seizures, bloodstream infections, and even death.
“Flint families should not have to pay for water that they still cannot drink, and they certainly should not lose their homes over this ongoing water crisis that was caused by the callous decisions of state government,” Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents Flint in Congress told The Daily Beast in a statement.
City officials maintain they need Flint residents to pay up.
“We have to have revenue coming in, so we can’t give people water at the tap and not get revenue coming in to pay those bills,” Treasury Department official Al Mooney told a local NBC affiliate. If all 8,000 Flint residents being served with lien notices pay their bills, Mooney said, the city could stand to make $6 million.
Despite local officials’ claims that Flint’s water is safe to drink, Mays, Marshall, and other Flint residents rarely drink tap water.
“I don’t really trust it. We used bottled water daily to brush our teeth, to wash our face,” Marshall said. She has lupus and arthritis, and says the city’s water causes her symptoms to flare up. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but something in the water burns your skin. I have ulcers now. It’s just one thing after another,” she added.
Marshall said her chronic illness makes it difficult to work and she has little income left after buying her children healthy groceries to mitigate the effects of lead exposure and paying her own medical bills.
“My last water bill was $99, and out of that, only $25 was for water,” she said. “The rest was service charges.” She plans on paying the first $28 toward her $1,200 bill this week.
“You need to just about kill yourself to be able to live here, to live decently,” she said.