Detroit: Water, Water, Everywhere, But Not A Drop To Drink
There's a horrible drought in California and I'm going to rip out my lawn and replace it with a rock and cactus garden, as several neighbors and friends already have. The city even offers a cash incentive for doing so. There are also serious drought conditions on northern Texas, western Nevada and southeastern Colorado. But not in Detroit-- nor anywhere in Michigan or Ohio (which is closer to Detroit than lots of Michigan itself is). Plenty of water there... except for people to use. Well, not all people. Poor people are the ones who have no water-- tens of thousands of them.
A few months ago the Detroit Water and Sewerage District sent out something like 46,000 shutoff notices-- after jacking up the price of water so that it's prohibitively expensive for many families. People in Detroit are charged an average of $75 a month for water, comapred to a national average of $40. By summer, the District was talking about 150,000 households they consider delinquent and plan to stop serving. John Conyers, the congressman who represents most of the poor people living in Detroit, flat-out declared the District management's policy "inhuman" and the UN reminded Detroit (and I hope Lansing) that "Disconnection of services for lack of means to pay may constitute a violation of the right to water. Disconnection due to non-payment is only permissible if it can be shown that the householder is able to pay but is not paying-- in other words, that the tariff is affordable."
Conyers is working on legislation to keep the District from being able to cut people off from water. what do you think Paul Ryan, John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy will have to say about that? How about predatory Michigan Republican leaders like Fred Upton, Dave Camp, Candice Miller, and Tim Walberg? They don't care-- especially because gold courses that don't pay still get to waste massive amounts of water while poor families have no water for drinking or sanitation. The GOP wants to see the system privatized and kicking poor families off their books, makes that look a lot more attractive for corporate buyers.
In a city where the median household income is less than half the national average, 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line and 23 percent are unemployed, it comes as no surprise that at least 40 percent of customers are delinquent on their bills.Ah... yes-- which is why we don't hear Fred Upton, Candice Miller, Dave Camp, Tim Walberg speaking up-- nor Bill Huizenga, Dan Benishek, Mike Rogers, Justin Amash and Kerry Bentivolio.
The water shut-offs have taken no prisoners. Since this year's shut-offs started at the end of March, at least 15,000 Detroit households have had their water turned off. But the campaign, a tactic designed to pressure Detroiters into paying their water bills, began with little or no publicity last year, when 24,000 homes had their water shut off, says Darryl Latimer, the deputy director of the water department.
The frequency of shut-offs gained momentum in the fall, shortly after the city’s bankruptcy was filed, and just a few months after the city contracted shut-off services out to Homrich, a demolition company. The city agreed to pay Homrich at most $6 million for work over 730 calendar days. Delinquent customers were given a grace period in December for the winter months, with shut-offs resuming upon the arrival of spring.
With the city’s average of just under three people per household, these numbers mean that roughly 100,000 Detroiters out of a total population that hovers just under 700,000 have already been affected by the shut-offs, with tens of thousands more awaiting their turn.
Clampdowns can seem to arrive out of the blue, as residents don’t receive any formal notification that their services are to be shut off... Residents targeted by the shut-off campaign have been reluctant to speak up. Some have stayed quiet because they’ve resorted to illegally hiring plumbers, and others—who are without water and relying on neighbors and friends for drinking water and showers—are afraid child-protective services may intervene, as a lack of running water is grounds for social services to immediately take children out of parents’ care.
Even those without children remain reticent. Some feel tarred by a general notion of shame and culpability for not being able to meet such a bare necessity as water. Last week, a headline in one of the local newspapers, the Detroit News, described delinquent customers as “water scofflaws.”
This stigma is enhanced by the painting of blue lines in front of those houses that have just had their water turned off-- lines painted by Homrich’s employees after a job is completed... Monica Lewis-Patrick, a community organizer who has been going door to door with fellow activists in order to raise awareness and distribute water, says she has come across old-age pensioners who-- not knowing where to turn after their taps were closed off-- have gone without running water for almost a year.
...“This is a public-health emergency,” says Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University and director of the school's Center for Civil Rights. But Hammer takes it further. Beyond the likely prepping of the water department for privatization, the law professor states these measures are just one part of a larger process of moving people out of neighborhoods the city wants to see emptied out. “They are also shutting water off not wishing people will pay necessarily, but implicitly hoping people will move,” he says.
Geographical relocation is a controversial issue in a city like Detroit, which is 83 percent African-American and has a painful history of housing segregation. The Motor City’s financial woes are also often associated with decades of white flight, which left its population depleted by almost two-thirds and its tax base in tatters.
The city’s racial makeup plays a role in the way this is being dealt with too, Hammer says: “If this was not an impoverished African-American community that was getting the brunt of this, people would be up in arms.”