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‘I can’t lose my house’: Outrage after Flint sends foreclosure warnings over tainted-water bills

During a protest in 2016, a Flint resident wears water jugs bearing messages. (Jake May/The Flint via Associated Press)

Thousands of Flint, Mich., residents have been warned that they could lose their homes if they don’t pay outstanding water bills — even as the city has just begun replacing lead-tainted pipes after a contamination crisis linked to a dozen deaths.

Warning letters were mailed to 8,002 residents in April, according to the city, a few weeks after state officials ended a program that was paying the majority of their water bills.

But many Flint residents still don’t trust their taps — lining up for free bottled water or installing city-recommended filters after revelations in 2014 and 2015 that dangerous levels of lead had leached into the system while officials tried to cut costs.

“I’m not going to give them one penny,” a resident who owed $822.62 told the Toronto Star in March, shortly before letters warning of tax liens were mailed out.

More than $5.8 million in water and sewer charges need to be collected, according to the city.

“This is difficult for residents, too,” city spokeswoman Kristin Moore said. “It’s a tough place to be in, but we’re just trying to do the best we can.”

In Flint, Mich., there’s so much lead in children’s blood that a state of emergency is declared

The letters — like one shown on NBC 25 — give residents with half a year or more of unpaid bills a month to pay up or face possible foreclosure.

Moore said residents will have until next February to pay before the county is called in to enforce the warnings. And the city called the 8,000 letters “routine” in a statement — though no one got one last year, in the aftermath of the lead poisoning crisis.

In 2014, a state-appointed manager switched Flint’s water supply from a lake to the Flint River.

More than a dozen state and local officials have since been charged with crimes after corrosion from the new water source allowed rust, iron and lead into the water supply. They’re accused of ignoring warnings and knowingly putting the industrial city’s 95,000 residents in danger.

“The catastrophe exposed thousands of children to high levels of lead, which can cause long-term physical damage and mental impairment,” Brady Dennis wrote for The Washington Post. “And water contamination also has been linked to the deaths of a dozen people from Legionnaires’ disease.”

The city has since started paying Detroit for tap water, and earlier this year, state officials said lead in the water had fallen to safer levels.

But in March, resident Melissa Mays and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit forced the city to begin replacing 18,000 lead-tainted pipes.

Under the settlement, the state must also keep distributing free bottled water to residents who want it, and ensuring every home has a working water filter.

But the same month, the state ended a crisis-era program that paid 65 percent of residents’ water bills.

Mays, one of many who still doesn’t trust the water system, refused to pay.

“We just don’t want to pay to have ourselves killed,” she told the Toronto Star at the time.

After getting her warning letter in late April, she told NBC 25, she was considering skipping her mortgage or car payments to come up with the balance.

“I don’t know of any other choice,” she said. “I can’t lose my house.”

‘If I could afford to leave, I would.’ In Flint, a water crisis with no end in sight.

In a statement Wednesday, Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) blamed the state for “callous decisions” that created the debacle. “Flint families should not have to pay for water that they still cannot drink,” he said.

Moore, Flint’s spokeswoman, said officials had no choice under a city law but to send out the letters.

“We are legally obligated to follow this process,” she said.

Mayor Karen Weaver said much the same in a statement Wednesday.

“I understand it’s the law, but I don’t like it because of the circumstances,” she said. “We are working to see if any changes or something can be done to help the residents affected by this.”

More reading:

The poisoning of Flint

Flint’s water crisis reveals government failures at every level