Analysis Human Rights

‘Water Is a Human Right’: Advocates Call for End to Detroit Water Shutoffs

Teddy Wilson

Despite being surrounded by the largest collection of freshwater lakes in the world, thousands of Detroit residents—most of them low-income people of color—are finding themselves without access to fresh water because of actions by the city's water department that advocates say are in violation of Detroiters' human rights.

Read more of our coverage on the Detroit water shutoffs here.

Despite being surrounded by the largest collection of freshwater lakes in the world, thousands of Detroit residents—most of them low-income people of color—are finding themselves without access to fresh water because of actions by the city’s water department that advocates say are in violation of Detroiters’ human rights.

In March, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced an effort to collect more than $119 million in delinquent payments from more than 150,000 customers in an effort to reduce the department’s $5.7 billion debt load—which it acquired after the city, and then its water and sewage bonds, were downgraded by multiple major credit agencies. As part of that plan, in April and May the department shut off water service at a total of 7,556 locations. In June, the department redoubled those efforts, shutting off service at 7,210 locations in one month alone.

Community advocates have spoken out against these tactics, and have organized to protest policies that they say are denying residents a basic human right to water.

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DWSD has targeted properties that have bills that are at least two months delinquent and owe at least $150. But, according to the department, it only disconnects service to some of the properties that receive shutoff notices. For instance, in May DWSD says it sent out 46,000 shutoff notices but only disconnected service for about 4,500 customers. The department says this is because of staff shortages (in January, DWSD eliminated 600 jobs as part of a restructuring of the department), though the disconnections are being performed by a private contractor. The department also says that the majority of customers who have their water shut off experience a disruption in service for less than a day, because most people pay their bill soon after the shutoff begins.

In June, amid these collection efforts, the city council voted to approve an 8.7 percent increase in water rates. This will increase the average resident’s bill from $65 to $70 per month, which is about $35 higher than the national average. Residents have reportedly seen their water rates increase by 119 percent over the last decade. The rate increase was passed in a 6-2 vote, with Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry and Council member Mary Sheffield voting against the increase.

Sheffield told Rewire that she voted against the increase because she believes there are issues the DWSD should address first before increasing the water bills of residents. “There have been several calls to my office from people who have been paying their bills and are getting shutoff notices,” said Sheffield. “People are also complaining about vacant homes with running water that can help drive up cost, that the department is now seeking residents to pay for.”

In recent years, Detroit has gone through a drastic period of depopulation, in large part due to the economic effects of the loss of manufacturing jobs coupled with the subprime mortgage crisis, which has led to an unusually large number of vacant homes for a major U.S. city.

Many of the residents in the district that Sheffield represents have come to her with complaints about the water department’s collection efforts. She’s heard from residents who claim to have paid their bill in full but still received shutoff notices, and residents who have attempted to make payments on their bill but cannot afford the steep late fees. Sheffield’s District 5 is the most diverse in the city. Thirty-nine percent of the district’s residents are Black, and 38 percent are Latino; they are also the poorest residents in the city, with a per capita annual income of $16,753.

The department’s aggressive collection efforts have led advocates to form the People’s Water Board Coalition, which is advocating for access to and the protection and conservation of water for Detroit residents. The coalition comprises a number of community groups, including social justice, environmental, labor, and conservation organizations.

Tawana Petty, a spokesperson for coalition member Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, told Rewire that she believes that the actions of the DWSD are part of a larger effort to privatize the city’s water by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who she says has a “dictatorship” over Detroit.

The Detroit Free Press reports that since March Orr has been exploring the privatization of the DWSD, and is currently reviewing bids as part of the plan. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Orr as emergency manager last spring to oversee the city’s bankruptcy.

The DWSD has also been criticized for targeting residential customers much more aggressively than commercial ones throughout the spring and early summer. On July 9, the department announced that it would increase collection efforts of delinquent commercial customers, with DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer noting that commercial accounts made up 12 percent of the accounts that remained delinquent at that time.

Greg Eno, public affairs specialist with the DWSD, told Rewire in an email that currently there is $89 million owed on some 91,000 delinquent accounts. Of those accounts, 80,000 are residential and 11,000 are commercial. Despite the significantly smaller number of delinquent commercial accounts, commercial customers represent more than half of the money that the city is seeking to collect: $46 million, compared to $43 million to be collected from residential customers.

Shea Howell, another spokesperson from Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, says the department is only going after the commercial accounts now because of public pressure. “The motivation is the desire to make the water department more attractive either for sale or for a private-public partnership as part of the bankruptcy proceedings,” Howell told Rewire.

The shutoffs could have a significant effect on public health, in a city that is already facing significant public health issues. “Of course it poses a true public health issue when you’re talking about water,” said Council member Sheffield. “Water is a human right. If you’re cutting off access to people’s clean running water, there definitely is a public health issue.”

A recent report found that children in Detroit are dying at a greater rate than in any U.S. city its size or larger. Another report found that residents of Wayne County, where Detroit is located, are the least healthy in the entire state. At the same time, state lawmakers have reduced funding for health care for low-income residents, and the rising poverty rate has had a direct negative effect on reproductive health outcomes; the city’s abortion rate and infant mortality are drastically higher than in the rest of the state.

Sheffield sees some improvement with how the DWSD has handled the collection effort, but still sees room for improvement. She cited the department’s Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program (DRWAP), which is designed to help customers who have trouble affording their water bill. According to a DWSD press release, there are currently more than 17,000 customers enrolled in a DRWAP payment plan program designed to fit each customer’s financial situation and ability to pay. The program requires that residents “make some kind of contribution toward their accounts” before they can qualify for assistance. Eno told Rewire that the “contributions” can be as low as $20 or $30 per month, but are “determined on a case-by-case basis.”

Individuals eligible for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program must live in single-family dwellings in the city, have received a shutoff notice, and be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line or participating in public-assistance programs. The home also must have a new automatic meter reading (or AMR) meter installed.

Some advocates see these criteria as creating an inappropriately high barrier to entry into the program. “They are really being given the run around,” said Petty. She also noted that some residents have reported being told incorrectly that they have to meet criteria that are not part of the program. “They are being told that you have to have a valid ID, you have to have ownership of the property, you have to have an income,” she said.

Petty says that while the DWSD is trying to create a narrative that the department is helping people with the program, the reality is that many residents are unable to receive assistance.

Many advocates see the city’s actions as part of a long history of racial inequality in the city since low-income residents and people of color have been disproportionately affected by the water shutoffs.

A report released in March by the New Detroit Coalition found significant gaps between racial and ethnic groups throughout the area in “educational achievement, income, home ownership and business ownership.”

The population of Detroit is 82.7 percent Black, with a median household income of $26,955 and 38.1 percent of residents living below the poverty line. The city also has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at 23 percent.

Oakland County, one of Detroit’s suburban counties, is 76.7 percent white, with a median household income of $65,637; it is the richest county in state.

DWSD Director Sue McCormick was quoted in a press release saying she wants to make it clear that while there are a large number of delinquent water accounts in Detroit, those delinquencies will not affect suburban water bills. “Unpaid Detroit water bills affect only Detroit customers,” McCormick said. “No suburban customers pay any extra on their bills to make up for unpaid bills on Detroit addresses.”

Petty views this as coded language meant to assuage the concerns of white, wealthy suburban residents.

A growing chorus is calling for action to address Detroit’s water crisis. A report from Demos characterized the program as “mass enforcement to discipline the people” and as a “misuse of the right to deny service.” The United Nations released a statement saying that “disconnecting water from people who cannot pay their bills is an affront to their human rights.” Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) called on President Obama to take “immediate federal action and local relief for the water crisis impacting thousands of Detroiters.”

To bring attention to the crisis, the People’s Water Board Coalition is organizing a march and rally Friday. Assembling at the Cobo Convention Center, organizers will join with local residents, clergy, and progressive activists from the Netroots Nation conference. They plan to march to Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit, a block from City Hall, calling for a moratorium on all water service shutoffs and adoption of the Detroit Water Affordability Plan, created by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, which proposes a combination of affordability programs, consumer protections, and water conservation efforts.

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