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Report: 3K households in Milwaukee are without plumbing, mostly affecting Black and low-income residents

City disputes claim of 'plumbing poverty' in Milwaukee

Joscarfas (CC-BY-ND)

Milwaukee ranks third in the nation for residents without access to running water at home, according to a new report from Kings College London.

The report found there are approximately 3,000 households in Milwaukee without plumbing — that means if four people are living in a house, 12,000 people in the city of Milwaukee don’t have access to water at home.

That number has remained unchanged since 2000, according to the report.

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Because other cities have improved, Milwaukee’s ranking has jumped from 20th to third place among metro areas with the highest relative share of household plumbing poverty between 2000 and 2017.

“We view no change in plumbing poverty as equivalent to no progress,” the report says. “Stagnation ought to be taken as a wakeup call to leaders in these cities to prioritize policies focused on infrastructural equity and provision for all households.”

Most of these homes belong to people of color in neighborhoods of poverty.

But according to the city of Milwaukee, the report is not accurate.

“We have water meters on every residential property in Milwaukee,” said Jeff Fleming, communications director for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “It defies logic when anyone states there are thousands of unplumbed homes in Milwaukee.”

Robert Miranda, a spokesperson for the Freshwater For Life Action Coalition, an activist group that says the city has not done enough to prevent lead from getting into the city’s water, also cast doubt on the Kings College study.

“In our work in regard to the lead issue, we focused on in-house plumbing all across the city, and we’ve never run across a house in the urban community, and outside the central city, that did not have plumbing,” Miranda said.

Cavalier Johnson, Milwaukee Common Council president, said while Milwaukee homes are connected to the city’s water department, the report shows there is a problem that needs to be fixed.

“Even if 3,000 is an exaggerated number, this is a problem,” Johnson said. “If it is 300 homes or 30 homes without adequate plumbing in this city, this state or this country, it is inexcusable.”

The report found other cities across the country, including San Francisco and Phoenix, are experiencing similar problems, but Milwaukee’s history of segregation and redlining, as well as the city’s location in the Rust Belt, have worsened plumbing poverty. The unforgiving downsizing of Milwaukee’s heavy manufacturing sector that started in the 1970s hit the city’s Black middle-class community the hardest and parts of the city never recovered.

“Legacies of redlining, institutional discrimination, and anti-Black urbanism have created an unequal and unjust environment for people of color, especially Black Milwaukeeans,” according to the report.

In 2017, twenty-eight percent of individuals with incomplete plumbing were Black, even though Black individuals comprise just 16.1 percent of the metro Milwaukee population.

“Future research is needed to investigate the geography of overrepresentation among Black Milwaukeeans and whether the unequal outcomes of plumbing poverty represent a new form of infrastructural redlining in the city,” the report states.

Kings College London studied a handful of cities. Austin, Texas, jumped from 17th to fifth; Cleveland, Ohio, from 33rd to sixth; Nashville, Tennessee, from 22nd to 12th; and Seattle, Washington from 37th to 14th.

A report last year released by a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor found Milwaukee ranks last when looking at racial inequality measures across the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas.

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