Detroit cuts off water for the poor, communities fight back

Monday, July 28, 2014
Demonstrators oppose the water shut-offs in Detroit on July 18.

The city of Detroit has been declared bankrupt, reeling from the closure of many auto plants and related enterprises that were once the backbone of the city.

City administrators are making working people bear the brunt of this severe economic crisis. They are driving many out of their homes and out of the city, while a small area is gentrified.

Whole neighbourhoods are disaster areas. Schools and community centres are being shut.

Now a new twist has been added -- cutting off water to the poorest, creating a humanitarian and health crisis.

Dianne Feeley, a former auto worker, activist with Detroit Eviction Defense and long-time socialist, said that National Nurses United called a July 18 demonstration in which 1000 people marched against the water cut-offs, condemning the move as a severe health hazard.

In response, Feeley said that on July 21, the water department announced a 15-day suspension of the shut offs.

Feeley said: “This is a partial victory, but the reality is that the monthly water fee of US$35-$50 is too high for a city with 42% poverty. There is a water affordability plan, but the requirements are too high and the amount of money available ($1 million) is too little.”

Feeley described the initial impact of the cut-offs, saying: “I walked out of my apartment July 10 and saw a water shutoff truck across the street.

“So I looked around to see where the driver was and found him trying to locate the valve to shut off the water to my neighbour’s apartment.

“I was pretty shocked because we are all renters and it is the landlord who pays the water bill, but he said money was owed and he had an order to shut off the water to the apartments, and mine was next on the list! One of the apartments has a five-year-old child living there.

“I ran upstairs, called the management company, and found out that since they have taken over the property, they hadn’t received a water bill! I was able to stop the turnoff and get the management company to call the water department and make arrangements to pay.

“This was all over a $511 bill for four apartments over a three-month period. You would think that if a city department was empowered to shut off service, they would at least have to deliver a certified letter to the owner -- but that's not the case in Detroit.

“In May alone, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD), a city agency, sent out 46,000 shut-off notices to residential customers 60 days in arrears or owing more than $150. Ten percent had their service shut off.

“DWSD maintains that 120,000 residents are delinquent and hired Homrich Inc., under a two-year contract, to the tune of $5.6 million, to shut off water. The goal is to process 3000 residents each week.

“Once the water is shut off, a resident must pay the full amount plus a re-connection fee (typically $30), or pay at least one-third of the total amount owed plus the fee to enter into a payment plan.

“By the start of July 4, 500 households were without water. After a shutoff, the Michigan Department of Human Services can remove children from the home and place them in state custody.

“Over the past decade, water and sewage rates have risen 119%. Meanwhile, Detroit’s rate of unemployment is estimated at 50%, and its poverty rate is about 40%.

“In 2006, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization proposed a water affordability program for low-income residents with an initial funding level of $5 million to the Detroit City Council. But the City Council approved only a limited version.

“The water department's program -- established through the monthly voluntary donations of other customers ・ requires residents to jump through considerable hoops to obtain aid.

“Also, information on the website is only in English.

“The reality is that the city water department is one of Detroit's jewels. It has developed over 150 years and serves not just the city, but 40% of south-east Michigan.

“Various mayors have outsourced parts of the department over the past 12 years. This has delayed maintaining the infrastructural operations.

“However, a 2012 commissioned report called for cutting the work force by 80%, replacing them with contractual workers.

“Now Kevyn Orr, the emergency city manager, wants to privatise or regionalise it (meaning Detroit would lose control).

“The Peoples Water Board Coalition, a group of Detroit activists, issued an open letter in June challenging both the shut-offs and the lack of transparency about the future of the water system.

“They demand immediate cessation of the shutoffs, restoration to households who had been shut off, and implementation of a meaningful water affordability plan.

“They declare that water is a human right and water from the Great Lakes (where Detroit gets its water) is held as a public trust.

“In response, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a press release that stated human rights law requires governments to take urgent measures -- including financial assistance -- to ensure access to essential water and sanitation: ‘the households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected.’

“Meanwhile DWSD has been investigating shut-off accounts to see if the household had been ‘stealing water’. Of the 178 investigated, they determined that 79 had been and stated they would be slapped with a $250 fee for the first offence, $500 for the second and $660 for the third.

“The fee would have to be paid in full before the department would work with the resident to get their water turned back on.

“This is not the first time there have been huge water shut-offs, but coming on top of all the other issues we are facing under bankruptcy, attention is being paid to the problem.

“Some groups have set up Emergency Water Stations and Canadians living on the other side of the Detroit River are planning on bringing over water supplies.

“Recently about 50 demonstrators blocked the Homrich trucks from coming out of their lot, and several activists were arrested.

“I’m active in Detroit Eviction Defense. We discussed how we want to concentrate on helping people in various neighbourhoods to protect themselves from these turnoffs.

“Since we are currently working in south-west Detroit, a predominately Mexican American section of the city, and are leafleting and putting up ‘Justice Not Eviction’ signs in English and Spanish, we’ll also be talking about the water shut offs.”

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From GLW issue 1018