In a Sunday, April 19 article entitled “Despite City Efforts to Help, Water Cutoffs Loom” the Detroit Free Press raised some important issues at this moment of the city’s historic water crisis. Here are 8 points that we would like to highlight & clarify, based on our ongoing work with victims of water shutoff in Detroit.
1. We are grateful that The Detroit Free Press is covering city-imposed water shutoffs and has made a decision to place it on the front page and to devote a considerable amount of space in the Sunday edition. Obviously, we think this is an issue that deserves the attention of Metro Detroiters and the rest of the world. This is why we joined other Detroit leaders to invite a United Nations delegation to investigate the crisis last Fall and this is why we are eagerly awaiting their return next month.
2. The Free Press reported that “the city is back in frustrating, familiar territory again,” alluding to 73,000 active residential accounts who remain at least two months behind in their water payments. We want to flip the script on who bears the ultimate frustration in this process: Detroit residents who have had their water shut-off, many of whom we have met over the past year. Time and time again, we discover that they are victims of unfulfilled promises from landlords, water leakage, legitimate billing disputes and inadequate financial aid.
3. We are pleased that you report that Mayor Mike Duggan has admitted that his payment-plan system is not working for thousands of Detroiters, almost all of them black and long-time residents who have stayed and paid and refused to walk away from the city even during its most intense tribulations.
4. We are pleased to read that the Mayor, this week, will be announcing some adjustments to the help provided to victims of water shut-off. A 50% reduction in back due amounts and a 25% reduction on monthly payments is a small step, but it is in the right direction.
5. We believe, however, that tweaks and adjustments will not solve this crisis for many of the residents we’ve worked with. All along, we’ve joined many concerned Detroiters in calling for the implementation of the water affordability plan based on federal Environmental Protection Agency standards and passed by city council in 2006: no Detroiter or Metro Detroiter ought to pay more than 2.5% of their annual income. Unfortunately, it was reported that the Mayor has ruled out income-based payment plans saying that it is not possible to delineate an income associated with a water account because addresses are billed, not residents. Yet, the residents we are working with, in order to apply for any financial assistance, are required to show proof of income, the bill and the lease/deed agreement connected to the house and water bill. In addition, as the Free Press rightfully points out, other municipalities have paved the way with their success in this area: in Philadelphia, water payment plans take into account a ratepayers disposable income. If they can do it in Pennsylvania, we can certainly do it in Michigan!
6. We continue to be concerned when the Mayor makes claims about the availability of financial resources for those behind on their water bills. As the Free Press rightly noted, the funds coming from Wayne County Metro and the Detroit Water Fund are scarce (when compared to the millions of dollars that victims of water shut-off cannot afford). In addition, there are many requirements for access to these funds that are not being reported. Time and time again we talk with residents who have not been able to get help from these sources because their water was shut off either too long ago or not long enough, who owe either too much in back dues to DWSD or not enough! And if a resident is fortunate enough to receive funds from these sources, it automatically disqualifies her from receiving funds in the future.
7. We continue to be baffled and frustrated when city officials, including the Mayor, make references to demands for “free water.” In fact, we do not know anyone calling for free water for Detroiters. We’ve always made our request very clear: we believe that every resident of this watershed deserves to have access to affordable
8. Lastly, we are concerned about the report of language used for a media campaign documented in the minutes of the March 9 meeting of the new Great Lakes Water Authority. It read: “The goal is to change the culture regarding responsibility to pay for service.” We simply ask that city leaders cease this kind of victim-blaming. It has been our experience—through our door-to-door canvassing efforts, from calls to our water hotline and our emergency water deliveries—that the inability to pay water bills in the city of Detroit has very little to do with a lack of personal responsibility. This crisis has everything to do with unjust social and economic policies from the State of Michigan and the city of Detroit. More than 40% of Detroiters live below the poverty level and water rates are twice the national average (and climbing!). This doesn’t add up.
As we head into the Spring and another round of vicious water shut-offs, we want to make sure that the truth on the ground is clear. Too often, the Mayor and other city officials have been able paint over questions with vague insinuations. We desperately need leaders and media outlets to say what they mean and mean what they say. We would like to invite anyone and everyone to join us in our efforts, in the words of the prophet Amos, “to let justice roll like water.” Water is a human right for every precious Detroiter. Now, more than ever, we are faced with a sense of urgency. Now is the time for all Detroiters of faith and conscience to stand up and fight back.