As the water crisis continues to unfold in Flint, Mich., two key housing authorities are working to ensure that their residents are informed and have access to supplies.
The water contamination crisis, which started in April 2014 after the city of Flint changed its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River, is a public health danger after elevated levels of lead had been found.
According to the Flint Housing Commission, which owns 1,186 public housing units and has almost 600 housing choice voucher units in the city, all of its households have been affected by the water emergency.
“We are in the process of testing all of the public housing units to see if there are complexes that have higher lead levels, but we do not recommend drinking or cooking with city water until the problem is solved,” says Candace Gawne, modernization director of the Flint Housing Commission.
All city residents have been advised to use filters on their kitchen faucets. According to Gawne, the commission has acquired and installed filters on all occupied public housing units, and the public housing maintenance crews will replace them if they break. The commission has also sent letters to all of its voucher residents that filters are available, and the housing choice voucher inspector carries filters and replacements with him to give to residents who are found without them during inspections.
The commission also has been accepting water donations and has trucks distributing water to its public housing complexes on a weekly basis.
The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), the allocator of low-income housing tax credits and other financing for affordable housing as well as the state public housing authority, has been taking similar measures. MSHDA has 21 multifamily properties in the Flint area with more than 2,000 units and 587 households receiving housing choice vouchers.
“Safe water is fundamental to our mission of providing safe and affordable housing. We know that this is an issue that many Flint residents are facing,” says Michele Wildman, chief housing investment officer for MSHDA. “We’ve done everything we can to ensure that water filters are installed and provide access to information broadly on where they can seek water and other supplies.”
In mid-February, MSHDA delivered 14,000 bottles of water, 300 water filters, and 1,200 replacement cartridges for voucher residents and checked to ensure the filters were properly installed.
“It’s fair to say that some of them are still leery. There’s probably still some skepticism on the part of the residents,” says Wildman. “At this point, we are just making sure we are getting fliers into the hands of residents. Some of them may be struggling with mobility issues so we are working through our management teams on site to have supplies brought into them when they can’t make it to the outreach sites.”
Wildman says it will be an ongoing effort on MSHDA’s part to check back in with residents to make sure filter cartridges are being replaced. “We are fortunate to have agents to be boots on the ground to make sure this is happening,” she says.
Residents also may visit fire departments across the city to access bottled water, filters, and water testing kits.
While handling the day-to-day efforts of the crisis, the commission also is concerned about the health ramifications from the lead contamination. Gawne says the health department and other organizations have started free blood testing on the children and adults at the public housing communities.
“They are coming to the complexes to do this,” she says. “Since we have four large family complexes, this is important to us. Management at our complexes are setting up the dates and times and sending letters to all residents.”
With a declining population and a much higher poverty rate than the state average, the water crisis is just the latest in a series of challenges for residents.
“The Flint population has faced struggles over the years,” says Wildman, who is a Flint native and still lives in Genesee County. “They are very resilient.”
Gawne also is optimistic. “Being a Flint resident, we hope that the city of Flint can repair this problem for all of us and future generations to come. With the help of state and federal funding, this problem should be able to be repaired, and Flint should be able to recover,” she says.