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No Water For Motown: Why Detroit Is Denying Its Citizens This Basic Human Right

Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation, 7/11/14

Detroit skyline seen across the Detroit River from the riverwalk in Windsor, Ontario (Bernt Rostad/CC 2.0)

When Netroots Nation convenes its 9th annual conference in Detroit this month, I hope that attendees arrive pre-hydrated. Because despite living at the hub of the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet—taken together, the Great Lakes represent more than one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater—Detroit residents are running out of running water. They’re also running into city and state bureaucracies that, alarmingly, don’t seem to care.

In March, when the winter freeze finally began to thaw, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), the city’s public utility, announced that it would resume shutting off water to delinquent customers, at a rate of 1,500 to 3,000 per week. As a result, some 40 percent of DWSD customers will lose their water supply by the end of the summer; 70,000 of these customers are residential, which means that 200,000 to 300,000 Detroiters could be directly affected. This is, to be sure, a public health crisis.

The city would have an easier time explaining itself if it were being at all consistent in its treatment of delinquent customers. In a New York Times op-ed, journalist Anna Clark noted that Joe Louis Arena, home of the National Hockey League’s Red Wings, was $82,255 in arrears on its water bill as of last April; Ford Field, where the NFL’s Detroit Lions play, owes more than $55,000; and city-owned golf courses owe more than $400,000. No date has been set to give these commercial customers their shut-off notices. Meanwhile, Clark writes, “the city is going after any customers who are more than sixty days late and owe at least $150.”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed that (sadly) compares Detroit to Donetsk, Michael Hiltzik writes bitterly that in Ukraine, “[W]arring pro- and anti-Russian forces are using basic necessities of life, such as water, as weapons against the civilian population….The same thing is happening in Detroit, where city officials have subjected the civilian population to mass shutoffs of water for past-due bills, then placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way getting service restored.” And it’s service, mind you, that’s seen a 119 percent rate increase over the last ten years, including an 8.7 percent uptick approved by the city council just last month.

The average monthly water bill for a family of four in Detroit is nearly double the national average. Chris Hayes reported on MSNBC that, though the E.P.A. recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewage, some residents of Detroit pay 20 percent of their pretax income for these services. Those who can’t pay face a shutoff—and a stigmatizing blue slash of paint in front of their houses, signifying that they are, in fact, waterless.

On June 18, four advocacy groups—Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch, and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization—submitted to the United Nations a report documenting the situation. In response this week, UN experts condemned DWSD, noting, “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation and Senior Legal Adviser at the Prosecutor General’s Office, continued, “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

And as if depriving people of a basic human right isn’t outrageous enough, the byzantine legal and financial machinations behind the city’s actions are truly galling. The details, as described in Counterpunch by Detroit lawyer Tom Stephens, are dizzying—even the oversimplified Godfather analogy that he uses to analogize the city’s shady dealings requires a careful parsing—but they boil down to the simple premise that Motown values its financial-institution creditors more than its own citizens. It’s but another example of the 1 Percent’s preferences taking precedence over the Ninety-nine’s necessities. Indeed, many believe that DWSD’s strong-arm tactics are part of a larger plan to make the utility more attractive to private investors.

One of emergency city manager Kevyn Orr’s first acts was to sign off on the hiring of his former employer, Jones Day, as the law firm supervising the city’s bankruptcy—”despite the fact,” Mark Binelli wrote in The New York Times last year, “that Jones Day already represents some of the very banks holding said debt, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.” (Experts estimate that Detroit’s bill for Jones Day’s services will be around $100 million.) None of this is, of course, evidence of cronyism, but if it walks like a duck…

As part of the Netroots Nation conference, National Nurses United (The union is also active in the Robin Hood Tax movement) is holding a march and rally on Friday, July 18, to condemn Detroit’s shut-off program as a violation of human rights. If you’re attending Netroots Nation, I encourage you to participate in the action, which begins at 12:30 pm outside the Cobo Center in Downtown Detroit.

“There is,” writes author and activist Jane Jacobs in the introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” She could have been describing the Chapter 9 bankruptcy restructuring of Detroit. As Michigan’s brahmins work to appropriate and repurpose every last penny, they’re strangling and humiliating Detroit’s most valuable asset—that is, Detroiters themselves.

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