Detroit Pauses Water Shutoffs Amidst Harsh Criticism

An effort to collect on unpaid water bills throws the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department into the international spotlight.
Detroit Pauses Water Shutoffs Amidst Harsh Criticism

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Is running water a basic human right? Can a utility shut off water to collect debt?

In Detroit, where water customers owe a collective $175 million in unpaid water bills, those questions have drawn the attention of the United Nations and earned the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department a lot of negative publicity. But for now, things are at a standstill as the City attempts to find answers.

On Monday, July 22, DWSD halted water shutoffs for 15 days to give residents an opportunity to pay bills or make arrangements for keeping access. That decision came after the City received criticism from the United Nations, which called the shutoffs “a violation of human rights,” and after more than 1,000 human–rights activists marched through downtown Detroit last week to protest the situation. A group of 10 Detroit residents also filed a lawsuit against the department, alleging the shutoffs violate constitutional rights.

According to DWSD spokesman Greg Eno, the pause in water shutoffs is intended to assist low-income residents.

“We know that there is an affordability issue in the city,” he says in an MLive.com article. “We’re totally compassionate about that. That’s why we’re doing this pause … It’s really important that they reach out to us. We can’t go to homes and drag them here.”

Earlier this year, the DWSD sent out 46,000 shut-off notices to homeowners with delinquent accounts in hopes of changing consumer behavior and collecting on unpaid services. Since the shutoffs started — affecting more than 7,000 homes to date, of which 3,118 were reconnected after payments or arrangements were made — the department has faced harsh criticism.

In a letter to high-level city officials, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund stated they share “grave concerns about the process, lack of process, or ineffective process by which DWSD has terminated water services to thousands of indigent customers.”

The letter, drafted by ACLU Executive Director Kary L. Moss and NAACP Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill, contends this is not only a problem of individual households, pointing out poor city investments and a series of interest rate swaps related to bond deals that endured plummeting interest rates when the economy crashed.

The city’s water system is responsible for a large portion of Detroit’s $18 billion debt.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the City is planning to kick off a media blitz through social media, churches and community groups that will inform residents about payment plans and financial assistance available for those with a “documented inability to pay bills.”

“We’ve always maintained that what we are doing was a collection effort — not a shutoff effort,” says DWSD spokesman Bill Johnson in the Detroit Free Press.

The DWSD says most of the shutoffs were restored within 24 hours after the accounts were made current. The remaining suspended accounts represent less than 4 percent of the department’s residential customer base.



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