Don’t Shut Them Down

By Kim Hunter

You may recall the massive protests and international news coverage garnered when the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) began cutting off the water of tens of thousands of Detroit families. Any household that owed $150 or more was subject to shut off even though documents attained through the Freedom of Information Act showed DWSD “bookkeeping” was equally at fault for the outrageous bills people suddenly received. People who lived in apartments with absentee landlords couldn’t even pay to keep their water on if they couldn’t show proof they owned the building.

The protests and news coverage made a couple of things happen pretty quickly. First, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr dumped responsibility for the water department in Mayor Mike Duggan’s lap. After a bit of a stumble, Duggan created a 10-point plan for payment and tried to make the DWSD a bit warmer and fuzzier with mixed results. There was a short moratorium on shutoffs. Social justice groups pushed for the adoption of the Water Affordability Plan (WAP). The WAP had been approved by the Detroit City Council in 2006 but not adopted. It basically says rates should be based on income, not the bills from DWSD, which were often incorrect.

That was months ago. Recently, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), which is about to subsume Detroit’s Water Department, held a meeting where folks decided that depriving Detroit families of water is a policy that could “change the culture regarding the responsibility to pay for service.” In other words, according to GLWA officials, it’s not unemployment, high poverty, and the continual rate hikes that keep Detroiters from paying for their water – they just don’t pay. This puts the GLWA in the company of trolls in the comment section of the city’s papers, ready to believe the worst about Detroiters and blame us for whatever goes wrong despite the fact that people grapple with challenges ranging from poor access to jobs to a failing transportation system that are largely out of individual control.

Thirty-six thousand households will be cut from the water supply if all goes according the DWSD plan. You may ask, what about the Mayor’s much-publicized payment plan? Indeed, whatever his intentions, the number of households DWSD plans to deprive of water clearly shows that Duggan’s 10-point plan can’t meet the need. There is a crisis when tens of thousands of households don’t have the money for a basic service. Families have been unable to pay even though they know shut offs are coming, unless, of course, they are one of those homes where DWSD failed to send a shut off notice.

Canadians have crossed the border to deliver hundreds of gallons of water to show solidarity with Detroit families. The United Nations held jam-packed hearings and came down squarely on the side of struggling Detroit families. Tens of thousands of people being subject to water shutoffs should have been a wake-up call to city leaders that the system is out of whack. It requires new thinking. It requires adjusting to people’s economic reality. The Water Affordability Plan is that adjustment. It is the tool that struggling families in Detroit can use to keep their water on. It would also keep the water department from going under because, unlike shutoffs, it would ensure that residents are able to pay their bills. But first you have to recognize and respect the basic needs of Detroiters, and realize that water is indeed a human right.