Detroit’s New Reality Requires New Thinking

By Kim Hunter

My coworker, Denzel, recently said something that really struck me as we stood outside of Wayne County Treasurer-Elect Raymond J. Wojtowicz’s office with a man handing out anti-foreclosure flyers. We were waiting for people to come out of a meeting with the Treasurer where they were delivering petition signatures from almost 10,000 people asking to stop Wayne County foreclosures.

About 36,000 Detroit households are facing tax foreclosure and if no solution is found by March 31st, Detroit could set yet another record – this one for the largest single day of foreclosures in US history.

Inevitably, the conversation between Denzel, the flyer guy, and myself drifted to Detroit’s other crisis affecting tens of thousands of families – the water shut-offs. With a look of disbelief on his face, Denzel said, “Imagine you’re the Emergency Manager or the Mayor and you see tens of thousands of Detroiters who can’t pay their water bill and your solution is to cut them off?”

Indeed, what if Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who only dumped the Water Department in the Mayor’s lap once anti-shut off protests began, had been able to reach the goal of shutting off the water of say, 20,000 households? Imagine if there had not been thousands in the street chanting “water is a human right” and thousands of homes had their water shutoff. Even from a strictly by the book, by the numbers view, the shut offs on that level create at least as big a crisis as the lack of revenue to the system. On a more humane level, realizing that tens of thousands can’t pay their water bills should have been a wake up call to shift the paradigm. The normal approach, however effective it was or wasn’t in the past, won’t work now because we aren’t in a normal situation.

In addition to thousands who can’t pay their water bills, about 100,000 Detroiters are now in danger of having their homes taken away from them because of taxes owed to Wayne County. County Treasurer Wojtowicz has come up with a payment plan that eases the interest rate on the property taxes owed to the county but it doesn’t address the governmental foul-ups that are inevitable when trying to address 36,000 home foreclosure cases at one time. At a packed Detroit City Council meeting this week citizens called for halt to foreclosures. Some testified that they were in the middle of negotiations with the Treasurer to prevent foreclosure when they got foreclosure notices.

The same propensity toward foul-ups holds true for the Detroit Water and Sewage Department trying to deprive thousands of families of water. Some people don’t even get shut-off notices but the privatized shut-off crew still arrives and cuts the family water supply. Some have been trying to pay and still get shut off. These problems and the sheer number of those affected require leaders like the Mayor and Treasurer Wojtowicz’s to step back and recognize the enormity of the problem. Upwards of 30,000 households don’t have the money to pay for water or taxes to keep their homes. Both of these leaders had to be aware of these crises before families took to the streets and public buildings demanding solutions. Both leaders have to be aware of how many Detroiters can’t find jobs or can’t get to the jobs they had because of bad public transportation. These are not secrets.

After international media coverage on the city’s water crisis, Mayor Mike Duggan did produce a payment plan. That plan, unlike the Water Affordability Plan that residents have been advocating for, doesn’t address the issues of affordability and therefore isn’t sustainable. The Water Affordability Plan allows low-income residents to pay based on income. The plan needs to be implemented and the principles duplicated in a housing affordability plan for Wayne County. Beyond that, regional leaders need to work with families and advocates on the ground to create more comprehensive long-term solutions that transcend payment plans. In short, they need to come to grips with a new reality.