Report: Low-Income Detroit Residents Once Again Face Water Shutoffs

Thousands of Detroit residents will once again face having their water service shut off, according to a report by the ACLU of Michigan. Plans are being made by city officials to shut off water service for at least 26,000 Detroit residents.


Thousands of Detroit residents will once again face having their water service shut off, according to a report by the ACLU of Michigan. Plans are being made by city officials to shut off water service for at least 26,000 Detroiters.

The shutoffs are being planned in the wake of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) approving a proposed average rate increase of 9.3 percent for water customers in the city and suburbs. The water rate hike must be approved by the city council.

The DWSD shut off water service to more than 33,000 Detroit residents during the spring and summer of 2014. The shutoffs were part of an effort to collect more than $119 million in delinquent payments from more than 150,000 customers, and an attempt to reduce the department’s $5.7 billion debt load.

Human rights organizations were highly critical of the water shutoffs; community advocates also spoke out, formed a coalition of activist groups, and organized protests of the policies, which they said deny residents a basic human right to water.

The ACLU obtained a copy of draft minutes from a March 9 meeting, in which Detroit Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown disclosed details of the city’s plans to resolve issues with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).

The GLWA is scheduled in July to take over the regional system now operated by DWSD.

Brown reportedly told those attending the meeting that the first step is to launch a public relations campaign, which includes working with community and church leaders to inform customers of their options before the mass residential shutoffs are scheduled to begin again on May 1.

The ACLU reports that the plan for water shutoffs will initially target three groups: commercial accounts; customers whose service was shut off and then turned back on by residents; and customers who have used 10 times as much water as the average Detroit residential customer.

Brown also reportedly told those attending the meeting that after the initial targets are met, contractors would begin shutting off service to about 28,000 residential customers in Detroit who are more than two months behind in payments, or owe more than $150.

Neither Brown nor the DWSD responded to the ACLU’s request for comment.

Bill Nowling, spokesperson for the GLWA and former spokesperson for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, told the ACLU that Brown “misspoke” when he said that 28,000 residential customers would have their water turned off, and that the actual number of homes affected is “little more than 26,000.”

Nowling also told the ACLU that the mayor wants to review the assistance programs to low-income residents and delay residential shutoffs until there is a reassessment of the water fund plan.

In the wake of the criticism caused by the initial water shutoffs, the mayor established the Detroit Water Fund to help low-income residents with unpaid water bills.

To be eligible for assistance, residents must visit a local DWSD office and enter into a payment plan agreement, making a 10 percent down payment on their outstanding bill. In turn, the fund will pay up to 25 percent of their monthly bill for up to 12 months.

Residents must continue to pay their remaining portion of the bill each month in order to remain enrolled.

Tawana Petty, a spokesperson for coalition member Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, told Rewire that the mayor and the DWSD are conducting nothing more than a PR campaign to distract residents and those who want to report the truth about what is happening to low-income people in Detroit.

“The DWSD continues its criminalization of poor people while protecting the rich,” Petty said. “If they are going to speak about theft, they should be clear that millionaires and billionaires getting free services on the backs of poor folks is the real theft. The fact that they are discussing commercial accounts a year after they waged a war against residents, shutting off thousands, is very telling.”