Thirsty Detroiters Demand End to Water Shut-Offs

(AP Photo/Detroit News, David Coates)

Protesters march over the controversial water shut-offs Friday, July 18, 2014, in Detroit, Michigan.

UPDATE: On Thursday, August 7, Mayor Mike Duggan announced a ten-point plan to address the water department's much despised shut-off policy.

In Michigan’s largest city, a water crisis has been raging for months. Since spring, 17,000 city residents have had their water shut off by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) for unpaid water bills. Now living in unsanitary conditions, citizens in homes without running water can’t even flush a toilet. Deemed by public health officials to be living in inadequate conditions, many parents in homes without water are sending their children to live with family or friends for fear of losing their sons and daughters to Child Protection Services. For the elderly and the ill, lack of home access to water can be fatal.

Last week, after weeks of negative news coverage, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr relinquished control of the debt-laden Detroit Water and Sewerage Department—described by one activist as “a hot mess”—to Mayor Mike Duggan. Now, as Duggan tries to manage DWSD’s nearly $6 billion debt and much-despised water shut-off policy, he has extended a moratorium on water shut-offs and is expected to announce a new plan on Thursday for collecting past-due payments from residential customers.

Surrounded by the Great Lakes, home to 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, Detroit faces a crisis that is not only paradoxical; it’s complicated by the city’s bankruptcy. That didn’t stop the U.N. from calling the water shut-offs a violation of human rights.

While DWSD claims to offer assistance to residents who have difficulty paying bills, these assistance programs merely postpone water customers’ payments without offering any reduction. The plan to shut off water to roughly 40 percent of Detroit’s residents was delayed on July 21 and again on August 4, but so far no definitive solution to the problem has been tried.

Whether Detroit stands better off today than when Orr ran DWSD a week ago has yet to be seen. Some label the leadership transition as a partial victory for Detroit residents, suggesting that amid protests and national media attention, Orr folded to criticism and returned control of DWSD to a democratically elected official. (In a controversial move, Orr was appointed to his position in March 2013 by Governor Rick Snyder, as the city teetered on the brink of financial collapse. Orr, a corporate bankruptcy lawyer, has overseen Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy protection.) Others are more skeptical, wondering if Orr just handed off the mess of DWSD’s debt to Duggan, or whether the move is part of a bigger plan to privatize the water system.

With Detroit’s 16 percent unemployment rate, 38 percent poverty rate, and water bills that are nearly twice the national average, DWSD's debt—a whopping $5.7 billion, of which residents owe $43 million—is too much for Detroiters to shoulder. As Detroit residents wait for the mayor's announcement, he is being urged to launch a plan that will fully address the fact that many simply can't afford their bills.

“I saw a lady with five children, and she’s trying the best she can to make it with what she’s got,” Demeeko Williams of the Detroit Water Brigade, a new organization working to fight the shut-off policy, told The American Prospect. “She’s pretty active in the community, and she stopped the contractor from shutting her water off. She was afraid of the police coming to arrest her and take her children.”

DWSD spokesman Bill Johnson said that anyone who demonstrates financial hardship to DWSD will not have their water shut off and will be shown options for financial assistance. Financial assistance, however, is not quite what it seems.

The first assistance option is a payment arrangement plan. A resident must contact the DWSD office, claim they are having difficulty paying their bill, and arrange a plan to pay back their debt in anywhere between two and 36 months. But the required 30 percent down payment to initiate the plan can be a significant hurdle.

“I’ve seen an 89-year-old woman who just got out of the hospital come home and find her water shut off,” Williams said. “Her kids were having to scramble whatever they could to pay the 30 percent on her water bill.”

If the resident falls behind on her plan, she will be immediately returned to shut-off status. While it is helpful to spread out that debt over a longer period of time, new and expensive water bills every month will only increase their debt—postponement is not alleviation.

The second option the DWSD offers is the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program (DRWAP), which is supposed to provide grants to the needy for the payment of water bills, but it has only $1 million in its coffers. Like the payment arrangement plans, DRWAP is not all it’s cracked up to be. To begin with, DRWAP wasn’t even brought back in service until July, months after the crisis began. The program had been terminated in 2012, and was only reinstated when it became apparent that more and more Detroiters could not afford their water bills.

To qualify for DRWAP, Johnson said the resident must already be in shut-off status, be 200 percent below the federal poverty guidelines, have some sort of income, and have homes with new technology that allows DWSD to read the meter remotely. For the unemployed and for those without the new-metered technology (some 15 percent of Detroit residents), DRWAP is unreachable.

It’s not hard to look at the numbers and realize DRWAP is insufficient even for those who can reach it. DWSD leaders tout the fact that after they initiate water shut-offs, up to 60 percent of affected customers contact the DWSD within 48 hours and pay their bills or make payment arrangement plans. But many of those customers are having trouble paying their bills to begin with (many already fell behind on payment arrangement plans, after all), and that still leaves 40 percent of those shut off with no water.

Mercifully, a number of organizations and a few (let’s emphasize few) legislators have stepped forward to advocate for Detroit residents and fight the shut-off policy that is now on hold. The Detroit Water Brigade is one of these organizations, and has been collecting bottled water, setting up distribution hubs, and delivering water to Detroit’s most vulnerable residents. They have even set up an Amazon wedding registry for donations, and have been publicizing all the ugly twists and turns of the crisis.

Earlier in July, the Detroit Water Brigade teamed up with Rep. John Conyers, the Democratic congressman whose District includes Detroit, who said the water crisis is the most important issue on his plate. Conyers has reached out to the DWSD, the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and even President Barack Obama, asking for some $200 million to repair the crumbling water infrastructure, which he believes is the root of the problem.

Until then, Conyers is simply asking the DWSD for a statement that no one who cannot afford to pay will have their water cut off. “They will not be forgiven or given special treatment,” Conyers said, “but they will be owing for the water they use. But they will not be cut off.”

When asked about Conyers’ request, DWSD spokesman Gregory Eno didn't promise not to shut off the water of those who can't afford to pay, saying only that the department does not discriminate against the needy, and its employees have no way of knowing whether someone can’t afford to pay their water bill unless they come in and tell the DWSD.

DWSD announced on July 28 that it would be putting a 15-day pause on its shut-off policy to account for all of those who have a demonstrated financial hardship, and to show them their options for financial assistance. On August 4, a week after taking over the water department, Duggan announced a three-week extension on the moratorium.

Unless Duggan addresses the prohibitively high cost of water for so many people living in poverty (or finds a hidden stash of cash), the denial of a basic human right—a problem that demands major surgery to the city’s infrastructure and a booster shot to its finances—may simply be covered up by a yet another Band-Aid.

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