detroit water shutoffs

The city of Detroit and state of Michigan shut off water to nearly 19,800 homes since March, with 4,481 new cancellations in July.

The People's Water Board of Detroit (PWB), a coalition of grassroots organizations, continues to resist water shutoffs and efforts to privatize both the water department and the city.

"Water is a public trust and we are engaged in daily combat to make certain that that definition remains intact," said Maureen Taylor, who is state chair of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), a member of PWB.

The water department has been removing service from households that are two months or more past due or owe over $150. The department said it restores service after payments are made in full or a payment plan is arranged. To date, 10,951 houses have had service restored, leaving almost 8,800 households without water.

While individual houses have been cut off, a local golf course owes $200,000, Ford Field is behind $55,000 in payment and Red Wings Stadium is $80,000 behind, The Metro Times reports. The state of Michigan itself owes $4.5 million for the maintenance of grounds in the city, Taylor said.

"All of that water is still flowing. But poor people and elderly and pensioners are being cut off and denied access to water," said Monica Patrick-Lewis of We the People of Detroit, another People's Water Board member.

"It's the way business is always done," said PWB member Shae Howell. 'You don't go after your friends, you go after people that you think are vulnerable and won't make a big deal about it."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan released a 10-point plan on August 7, intended to help Detroiters stay current on their water bills. The plan includes extended water department staffing and hours, clearer communication to residents in danger of being cut off, and waiving turn-on fees and late payment penalties until the current moratorium expires on August 25.

A PWB press release stated the plan offers some immediate relief, but does not address the root causes of the crisis and does not help the nearly 9,000 households still without water. 

“The plan is an effort to take some of the immediate pressure off, but is not offering long term solutions, does not really deal with poverty, and is not embedded in an ethic of human rights or protection of the water as a public trust,” wrote Howell.

The People's Water Board has been advocating four main responses to the state and city's actions: place a moratorium on further shutoffs; restore water to all houses without service; leave water as a non-privatized public good; and implement the Water Affordability Program (WAP).

The Water Affordability Plan was first proposed in 2005 and would base water payments on an individual's income. WAP would set a cap for water payments at three-percent of a household's income, as well as provide mechanisms for unemployed Detroiters to make payments. At the time, the city council, mayor and water department approved the plan, which has yet to come into effect.

Officials are currently taking national and international action to ensure all Detroiters have access to water.

Taylor said that the coalition is working with UN rapporteur for the right to safe drinking water and sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque to label Detroit a disaster zone so the city can apply for international aid. Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Congresswoman Sheila Lee (D-TX) have asked President Obama for aid to relieve the $90 million shortfall.

Taylor insisted that this current crisis did not emerge without a context.

"This water fight is connected to the change in the economic structure of this city.”

Detroit, once the nation's third largest city has witnessed a decline in jobs and population over the past forty years, in part due to automation in auto plants replacing the need for human labor.

The city currently has an unemployment rate of 15 percent and almost 4 out of 10 Detroiters live at or below the poverty line. Water rates have increased 120 percent in the last decade and some residents spend up to 20 percent of their income on their water bill.

In 2011 and 2012, the Republican-controlled Michigan government approved legislation to designate state-appointed emergency managers to oversee the operation of cities under financial crisis, including Detroit. With six cities currently under emergency management, nearly fifty percent of Michigan’s black population lives without local political control.

Howell called this an occupation.

"We are a city being run by a dictator appointed by a governor that 92 percent of the city did not vote for. And a man who nobody voted for, who has complete power over contracts, over policy, over the day to day functioning of a city. So that's why we use the term occupation."

The city and state have privatized Detroit’s transportation and lighting departments, eliminated the human services department, and made cuts to EMT and firefighter jobs. In April, the state announced it was cutting the pensions of city workers.

Lewis-Patrick contextualized these events as an attempt to remove Detroit’s black and poor populations.

"They deconstruct the safety net because the overall strategy is gentrification. The ultimate goal is to move a significant portion of the African American population – especially poor people – from the city of Detroit to make it more inviting for those in other parts of the country and the world that want to move into Detroit."

Last year, low income residents in Cass Corridor were evicted from their homes as Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch planned to build a new sports and entertainment complex on the land. The area, which the city neglected for years, is emblematic of the fight for Detroit's future and who gets to live in it.

Tawana Petty, a communications representative for PWB and member of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (DREM) stated that the threat of privatizing water in Detroit has implications for its suburbs too, as DWSD provides water to 126 municipalities around the state.

"People think that this is just a Detroit issue, but if water is privatized it's going to get their rates increased three times what they're paying now."

Activists say the water struggle has global implications as well.

Taylor said that the People’s Water Board has received calls from people in Bolivia and Canada facing similar battles. Lewis-Patrick commented that you can find people in Palestine being denied access to water, saying a global response is necessary.

"Water is a basic human right. And so there should be no privatization of any commodity or any asset that is necessary for people just to live. There should be an international agreement that all people have a right to water."

Patrick-Lewis said that people interested in supporting Detroiters can send donations of water, volunteer on “Thirsty Tuesdays” to call the governor and demand policy chances.

In Detroit, Patrick-Lewis said, some community members have given neighbors keys to their back door to shower and get cooking water as needed, while others have offered to do laundry for those without water connections.

“So even in the midst of this most egregious act, there is still this human aspect to us that is beloved, and that is kind and tender and helpful to others. And that's what we've got to tap into. We've got to tap into our humanity."

For more information about the People’s Water Board of Detroit, visit their blog.  Follow the author on Twitter @kristianbailey.