Thinking for Ourselves: Water Reflections

By Shea Howell

It has been a year since the beginning of the aggressive campaign to shut off water to more than 30,0000 households in the city of Detroit. This week, many of us remembered the life and spirit of Charity Hicks, whose intellect and heart still shape this struggle for water justice. Her simple act of trying to help her neighbors prepare for shut offs cascaded into a series of events that brought the cry for affordable, safe water into the core of Detroit’s consciousness.

Over the course of this year, we have all become aware of the global dimensions of this fight. Water, essential for life, is becoming increasingly scarce. A recent study by the United Nations says that within the next 15 years the demand for water will outstrip the supply by 40%. Already the majority of the world’s population, concentrated in cities, lives within a 30 mile radius of water sources that are stressed and running out.

We have learned that this global crisis has an American accent. As poverty and joblessness spread, and right wing ideologies strip away any concern for economic justice or public responsibilities for our common heritage, more and more people find themselves facing unsustainable water bills. Circle of Blue documents that the price of water in 30 major US cities has risen 41% since 2010. And there is no end in sight as infrastructure ages, aquifers dry up, and private corporations get their hands on municipal systems.

Maude Barlow, who has championed water rights globally, and was deeply moved by the life force of Charity Hicks, recently wrote in the Nation;

We need to change our relationship to water, and do it quickly. We must do everything in our power to heal and restore the planet’s watersheds and waterways.

In practice, this means we need a new ethic that puts water and its protection at the center of all of the laws and policies we enact. The world would be a very different place if we always asked how our water practices—everything from trading across borders to growing food and producing energy—affect our most valuable resource.

Water must be much more equitably shared, and governments must guarantee access by making it a public service provided on a not-for-profit basis. The human right to water must become a reality everywhere.

It is this global and national context that makes the Detroit City Council’s actions to finally acknowledge that the City needs a real water affordability plan so important.

In the course of this effort, Mayor Duggan is proving himself exceptionally limited. He rattles off all kinds of statistics about houses knocked down, street lights put up, and car insurance, but seems incapable of grasping the vast differences between the amount of money available for assistance and the dire need of the majority of people in the city. Even the figures of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department indicate that nearly half of the 300,861 residential accounts are past due. The average amount is $732. Trying to fill this gap with charity is foolish and has proven massively ineffective.

Now the Mayor is talking about a “blue ribbon committee.” This is just another dodge to move away from the real solution that we have known since the City Council first adopted a water affordability plan a decade ago.

Roger Colton, a leading economist and advisor for the Detroit Affordability plan, recently said, “Piecemeal assistance programs rarely met the needs….Instead, the only model that truly works is a citywide affordability plan, in which water bills are calibrated so as to never exceed a certain percentage of a ratepayer’s income.”

Until such a plan is adopted, we in Detroit join with people around the globe to follow Charity Hick’s last wish. We will “wage love” for water justice.

Alex Halperin: How Motor City Came Back From the Brink…and Left Most Detroiters Behind

Shout out to WPD member Tawana Petty for organizing this interview!

“On August 30, 2013, a billionaire businessman named Dan Gilbert arrived at the White House to discuss the future of Detroit. Gilbert, founder and  chairman of Quicken Loans and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, had already invested heavily in the city; in 2010 he moved Quicken’s headquarters from the suburbs to downtown and relocated several of his businesses along with 12,500 employees. Six weeks before that White House meeting, the city had filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. Gilbert was in Washington as part of an elite delegation to discuss federal assistance for the country’s most visibly dysfunctional city.

The heads of the Kresge and Ford Foundations—large philanthropies that have roots in Detroit’s industrial past and continue to invest in the city—were there, as well as the CEO of the Henry Ford hospital system and the then-chair of Wayne State University’s Board of Governors. According to the Detroit News, the group met with senior administration officials including then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, President Obama’s advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Gene Sperling, who was the director of the National Economic Council.

The months leading up to the bankruptcy highlighted the depth of Detroit’s ongoing problems. More than one-third of residents live in poverty and, since 2008, tax foreclosures have pushed 27,000 occupants out of their homes. Michigan’s Republican governor had appointed an emergency manager to run the city, with the authority to renegotiate or cancel union contracts, hire and fire government employees, and sell, lease and privatize local assets. The city was often unable to provide basic municipal services like streetlights that worked or alarms for the fire department. The schools? Don’t even ask. Read More

Thinking for Ourselves: Water Reconsidered

by Shea Howell
July 4, 2015

On Tuesday, June 30, in a vote of 6 to 2, the Detroit City Council rejected the proposed water rate hikes backed by the Duggan administration. This was the first of a series of events this week to encourage the Mayor, The Emergency Manger of Flint, the Governor, and the newly emerging Great Lakes Water Authority to live up to their responsibilities to provide, safe, affordable water to all.

Later in the evening after the Council rejection, Mayor Duggan conducted a public meeting in District 2 on the Northwest side of the city. He was confronted with questions about why he is resisting a Water Affordability Plan. Most of the meeting was taken up by the Mayor presenting facts and figures about what he calls blight and his plan to create less expensive auto insurance for the city. In sharp contrast to his carefully thought out and researched efforts to tackle the hospital, legal, and insurance industries, the Mayor seemed mystified about how to approach a water affordability plan.

Perhaps he is mystified because his figures are imprecise and his logic faulty. In the course of the question and answer period, the Mayor told the audience that people should pay their bills, ignoring the fact that people are increasingly unable to pay escalating costs. He claimed that people wanted free water, that there was an assistance plan to help. He completely ignored the fact that his last plan failed miserably and his new plan will not go into effect until January 2016 with the GLWA. He was unsympathetic to the 2000 homes a week being shut off from water. He repeated the same arguments he has been saying for over a year, lacking facts or analysis. He was clearly frustrated as speaker after speaker challenged his views. Read More

Thinking for Ourselves: Faygo and Community Wisdom

By Shea Howell

June 26, 2015

As part of the celebration for the 100th Birthday of Grace Lee Boggs, the Boggs Center announced a weeklong series of events. One of these was a community protest at the Faygo Bottling Company on Gratiot Avenue. A number of people responded to the invitation to protest Faygo with astonishment. Why would anyone in Detroit protest Faygo?

For Detroiters Faygo is an iconic company. Like Better Made Potato Chips, Michigan strawberries, and Vernors, Faygo Red Pop is entwined with loving memories of the city.

Faygo began as a family business in 1907 and has been at its current site on Gratiot Avenue since 1935. In the mid 1980’s it was sold to the National Beverage Company, based in Florida, but has continued production in the old plant, keeping many long time employees. Read More

Philadelphia Passes Income-Based Water Affordability Plan

Read the press release below from Philadelphia City Council, which just passed a water affordability program:


Office of María Quiñones-Sánchez
Councilwoman, 7th District
City Hall, Room 592
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Contact: Jennifer Kates



PHILADELPHIA — Legislation sponsored by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez to improve water bill collections and institute a new program to protect low-income water customers unanimously passed City Council today. It now heads to Mayor Michael Nutter for signature.

The legislation, Bill 140607, would establish an Income-Based Water Revenue Assistance Program, or IWRAP, to ensure low-income Philadelphians’ water bills are affordable in relation to their income. It would also encourage increased collections and water conservation measures. Read More

Thinking for Ourselves: Common Sense Council

By Shea Howell

The Detroit City Council voted down the Curfew of River Days after public pressure. Chief Craig presented the proposal to lock down all young people under age 18 for four days from 6 pm to 6 am. He argued at the packed public hearing that this would make the Freedom Festival safe and increase parental responsibility.

The majority of the Council, as well as the majority of those in the auditorium saw through these claims. Council President Brenda Jones raised sharp questions challenging the Chiefs statistics and his logic. Members Castaneda-Lopez and Sheffield were equally concerned about the motivations for such a drastic measure. The racism inherent in the proposal was clear, criminalizing an entire community. President Jones patiently explained to the Chief that he was setting up a situation with such drastic restrictions on the normal activities of young people, that he risked provoking a confrontation.

Chief Craig showed no compelling need to impose this curfew. He said in the last 3 years, between 5 and 31 “incidents” occurred. He made an almost laughable defense of the curfew “tool,” saying it had proven to work well in stopping fires for Devil’s night turned Angels night. Read More