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The Detroit Water Project (YC W15) Connects Donors to Unpaid Water Bills (techcrunch.com)
37 points by _pius on Mar 18, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

I have a problem with this and question YC for taking on The Detroit Water Project. I'm truly not trying to be difficult but I do not see the full context of the situation here or in the TC article. I'm a native Detroiter (not the suburbs and live in the city now) and know that this problem is not as severe as often publicized.

There are programs already in place for people who are struggling to pay their water bills by the city, county, and state to avoid shut off regardless of their economic status. Why not focus your efforts on getting people enrolled in those programs; which would ensure they're doing everything within their power to keep water on.

As indicated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, in the news, talking circles, and community events, there are some that simply choose not to pay their bill over others (i.e. phone, cable, etc...). What is the need to pay your bill if others will do it for you? The city has made a ton of bad decisions but this is not one of them.

Thanks for the comment. Yes, there are programs in place that help people with their bills. They've a number of problems, however. Some ran out of funds and couldn't help any more people. What's interesting about those programs is that a few (including the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department itself) started referring people to us. Others (such as state-run programs) moved too slowly to prevent shut-offs.

Yes, there are people who simply choose not to pay their bills. When we determine that's the case with an applicant, they don't get assistance. Simple.

On top of that, we provide one-time assistance, so there isn't an opportunity to just decide to lean on us and stop paying a bill.

When looking through your website, I didn't see any information regarding any of what you've mentioned. As a Detroiter, I take it personal when organizations try to award pity on the city, as if we're some type of charity case. Yes there are some that are in real hardship for the moment, while other make choices. It is those choices that has led to the ruin porn of Detroit. I simply don't agree with providing assistance every time a hardship is presented versus providing resources for people to ensure it never happens to them again. I probably don't have to tell you the story of "Teach a man how to fish" or provide links on how giving away anything has statistically not helped; which others have already done.

I know people taking advantage of the programs already established and organization like yours. As you may determine a fraud case with some applicants, I would find it very hard to believe there is no fraud.

Pretty neat, just made a small donation. I think it would be cool to see real-time statistics and various metrics. Like how much has been given (regularly updating). What goals there are to reach people in certain priority levels, like 45% complete on P1 which is customer's water is scheduled for turn-off within the month. Show what numbers of monthly commitments would be needed. Etc. Donors could then better see the impact they are making. I think this is a big advantage to Watsi where you can see the person and their story. That may not be as simple for this project, but even aggregate metrics that show progress I think would be a huge incentive.

Thanks for the donation! And these are really good suggestions. That transparency is definitely a goal.

We updated the URL from http://blog.ycombinator.com/the-detroit-water-project-yc-w15..., which points to this.

From when giving stuff for free to people helps them? How will they learn to save and organize their lives? Social welfare was never a solution to ANY problem when provided long term to the same people. Instead of giving for free lets do this - ask people to work for 8 hours a week cleaning streets etc - and IN EXCHANGE their water bills will be paid off.

Do you seriously contend that the problems plaguing Detroit are a result of their residents' collective failure to organize their lives properly? I think most people agree that the rampant poverty in Detroit -- and the resulting unpaid water bills -- are largely a result of city-level mismanagement and the evaporation of employment opportunities resulting in tax-revenue death spiral. We're talking about a city where the police sometimes just don't show up in response to burglaries and the school system doesn't provide city-wide busing. And you're here lecturing the entire population of Detroit about financial responsibility.

Perhaps there are some Detroit residents who, if they were just a little more organized, could get themselves into a better situation. But some of them are just in bad situations no matter what they do. And who knows, maybe some of them haven't paid their water bills because they have decided that food, shelter, and medicine are more important. But nah, best to leave them with no running water. Otherwise, how will they learn?

Edit: I suspect if the city of Detroit offered the deal you're suggesting, there would be lines for it around the block (though even these lines would contain only the people who had transportation to get to the line, had someone to watch their children while they worked, etc.).

Detroit has also raised the price of water a couple times over the last decade to make up for budget shortfalls from lower tax revenue. I think it's more than double what it was in 2005.

Right. There have been increases in the price of water in Detroit. And they're angling to increase them again.

So shouldn't the project focus on providing decentralized water management to residents (roof capture, condensing from the air) instead of funneling money into a system used for tax collection with the side effect of providing water?

Solar can be used for distributed generation, why can we not provide distributed water production?

From talking to hundreds of people over the course of running this project, in many cases, what we have is not a failure to organize one's life. Instead, it's life events such as being laid off or having a medical issue get out of hand and force a person to leave work and forgo a salary that cause people to fall behind and need assistance.

In other cases, people are in situations where they're not earning enough to cover all of their life expenses, but the water department itself has turned them down for assistance. We see their attempts to do the best they can in their payment patterns. $25 here, $50 there as soon as they can.

These are not people that sit around actively looking for handouts. And many people we've helped have volunteered to help us however they can.

These people were doing fine before all the jobs disappeared. Whatever's wrong with Detroit, it's not that all the people magically forgot how to "organize their lives".

And objectively, giving people money works pretty well. https://web.archive.org/web/20101107195857/http://www.econom... https://web.archive.org/web/20141111020223/http://www.vox.co...

There is a growing opinion and growing number of studies done on the subject. That is, simply giving poor people cash helps alleviate poverty in better ways than (many or most) organized projects can, as the theory is that they better know how to spend it on their needs than those in position to help.




"Please avoid introducing classic flamewar topics unless you have something genuinely new to say about them."


It is useful to put projects like this in context. People are dying for want of $1000 - $5000 worth of medical treatment in poor countries.

"Donors have given over $170,000 for water bills for over 900 families in Detroit." 170 children's lives could have been saved for the same amount.

If you asked the beneficiaries of this project whether they would prefer a life was saved over their water bill being paid, I think most would say save a life.

Though these people are desperately poor (and probably rationally hopeless), they are citizens of a wealthy and powerful nation that will not let them suffer too much like over a billion other people with real problems do.

Watsi.org is a good place to start if you are serious about helping people.

I'm astounded that the practical and serious people at YC are participating in a goofball project like this that is competing for resources with serious efforts to do good.

Founder of Detroit Water Project here. Despite what you’ve said, this is a serious effort to do good. You mention saving a life versus contributing to a water bill. Why are those so dissimilar? Our assistance application data shows that over 350 children are in houses affected by this crisis.

Not having running water at your house is a real problem. It’s a public health and sanitation issue. People have not been able to flush their toilets, clean, cook, or exist in a state of dignity.

On top of that, without running water in a house in Detroit, a house can be ruled unfit for habitation. That can translate to children being removed from the home because they're in a dwelling unfit for habitation. Preventing families from being broken up isn't goofing around.

It’s a false dichotomy to say that you either save a life by helping a child in a poor country OR give to a water bill in the United States. You can do both in proportion to your ability.

Yes, these people are citizens of a wealthy and powerful nation, but we’ve already seen that it’s allowed them to suffer greatly. The City of Detroit itself—especially before we forced them to react—turned people off with very little regard to someone’s ability to pay.

You should volunteer to help us return phone calls to people that need help. If you do, I’m sure you’ll find that this is as serious a project as any!

Edit: On losing children, etc.

I suggest offering the option to both your donors and recipients to divert the funds to save as many lives as possible (call the Watsi crew).

"It’s a false dichotomy to say that you either save a life by helping a child in a poor country OR give to a water bill in the United States. You can do both in proportion to your ability."

For whatever proportion of someone's resources they are willing to give, they can choose to save lives for US$1-5k each.

Instead of providing one $1k life saving surgery and $1k water bill, two $1k surgeries could save two lives.

Sadly there is not a shortage of dying men, women and children who can be saved cheaply.

Perhaps one day there will be... if we stop goofing around.

I'm not against people getting medical treatments if they need them, but why call what we're doing "goofy"?

The single mother of three we helped who was contemplating forgoing her heart medication to make sure her children had water (and lost it anyway because she needed her heart medication) wouldn't call this "goofing around."

I'm genuinely interested in why you insist on framing this that way.

Edit: Nothing that we're doing suggests we value some lives over others. Watsi helps a specific demographic, we help another. Everyone wins here.

We should value all lives equally. Yours, mine, that mother, her children, and the children in far away places who will die today for want of heart surgery.

This will probably sound harsh, and I regret that, but I think it's the way things actually are, as against how we might otherwise want them to be.

When you say "We should value all lives equally," what pops into my head is the question "Of value to whom?"

In fact, if I had to choose between saving the life of a stranger, and choosing to save the life of someone I loved, I'd save the latter. This is because the person I love is a greater value to me than is the stranger.

There's a yawning gap between the language you're throwing around -- "goofy" -- and the kernel of legitimate criticism that you have on your side. I might agree that the choice to donate money to help Detroit residents pay their water bills is questionable because it reflects a conscious decision to do less good with your resources than you might have done. But I don't think you've earned the right to call the serious philanthropic efforts of others -- which do real good in the world -- "goofing around."

Instead of providing one $1k life saving surgery and $1k water bill, two $1k surgeries could save two lives. Sadly there is not a shortage of dying men, women and children who can be saved cheaply. Perhaps one day there will be... if we stop goofing around.

You're making a fallacious, reductionist argument. Looks like a misreading of Peter Singer.

I imagine you'd also criticize someone for showing a homeless family to the nearest shelter because in that time the person could have signed up for Watsi!*

* ... and this is coming from someone who donates to Watsi every month.

I'm assuming you're spending every cent of your income on charity for the neediest people on the planet seeing as you are so concerned about how other people choose to spend their money.

This is something I often ponder, and there are even more obvious targets for the sort of argument you're making. I typically think of the ASPCA -- I think the ASPCA is wonderful, and I love animals, but should anyone be donating money to ease the lives of animals when there are countless people, as you say, "dying of want"?

More realistically, though, I think we should understand that different people have different philanthropic interests. Maybe by offering a new cause we expand the total amount of money that people give, instead of taking money from the causes you deem to be more worthy? And isn't there an issue of autonomy here? I suspect we agree that nobody has to give money to anyone at all (except through taxes), so why not allow them the freedom to give in the way they find most meaningful, even if it does not have the greatest 'objective' impact?

"I think we should understand that different people have different philanthropic interests."

Yes, but they're wrong. Imagine seeing a hungry dog on the street. Going over to feed it is a virtuous thing to be sure. But, to step over and ignore someone choking to death on your way to the dog is not.

"give in the way they find most meaningful, even if it does not have the greatest 'objective' impact?"

It's easy to be fooled in our first world fantasy lives, but we are really living a world of men, women and children dying for want of sometimes as few as US$1000. Good is hardly good enough.

Something will surely fill every economic niche. If there are people who want to "donate" to the opera or dogs or cats or toys for tots, then some organization will find a way to serve that niche.

But, I think it is useful to oppose these goofball "charities" and educate people about lives they can save.

The stakes are very high. It is a matter of life and death.

You appear to have a strong opinion of which charities are more 'meaningful' for a donation. Out of curiosity, which specifically make your list?

Did you hold your most recent meal to this same standard?

This is a good point of view because it frames these donations as personal consumption, which I think is accurate and distinct from the duty we owe our fellow man.

So yes, I view donating to this or the opera similarly to eating a meal.

My point was more about the propriety of bloviating forth over what others do with their money (regardless of how you choose to classify those choices).

A meal is a handy rubric because it is quite easy to be either cost conscious or extravagant, thoughtful or oblivious.

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