Detroit’s Crisis Deepens as Water Shutoffs Hit Thousands

by Dianne Feeley

July 16, 2014

Detroit’s humanitarian crisis, indefinitely prolonged by fiscal austerity imposed by the state and its “emergency manager,” has taken another terrible turn since Spring, as the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) has begun turning off the water to “delinquent accounts.” Half of all accounts in the city are considered “delinquent” and, since March, the department has been shutting the water off to about 3,000 accounts per week.

Some of these delinquent accounts, though, have been untouched–like the Palmer Park Golf Club ($200,000 owed), Joe Louis Arena (which hosts the Red Wings; $80,000 owed), and Ford Field ($55,000 owed). Even though the City of Detroit raised $1 billion in bonds for infrastructure, $537 million of it was used for interest payments to JPMorgan Chase, UBS, and Morgan Stanley!

Detroiters protest the shutoffs at DWSD, where an unfortunately timed banner announces “Drinking Water Month” (Photo: Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press).

So, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised as I walked out of my apartment last Thursday and saw a water shutoff truck across the street. I looked around to see where the person was and found him trying to locate the valve to shut off the water of my neighbor’s apartment. I actually was a bit shocked, because we are all renters and it is the landlord who pays the water bill, but he said money was owed and he had an order to shut off the water to the apartments…and mine was next on the list! One of the apartments has a 5-year old child living there.

I ran upstairs, immediately called the management company, and found out that, since they have taken over the property, they hadn’t received a bill! Fortunately, I was able to stop the turnoff and get the management company to call the water department and make arrangements to pay. This was all over a $511 bill for four apartments over a 3-month period. You would think that if a city department was empowered to shut off service, they would at least have to deliver a certified letter to the owner–but that’s just not the case in Detroit.

People in other cities have asked how they and organizations they are a part of can stand in solidarity with Detroiters facing water shutoffs in addition to foreclosures, bankruptcy, and the attack on city workers’ pensions and health care. There has been a great deal of national and international coverage on the water shutoffs. And they are happening all over the city.

Detroit activist Maureen Taylor calls out an MSNBC reporter for misinformation on Detroit’s water shutoffs.

In May alone, the DWSD sent out 46,000 shutoff notices to residential customers 60 days in arrears or owing more than $150. Ten percent had their service shut off. DWSD maintains that 120,000 residents are delinquent and hired Homrich Inc., under a two-year contract, to shut off and reconnect accounts to the tune of $5.6 million. The goal, which by some accounts they are meeting, is to cover 3,000 residents each week. Once the water is shut off, a resident must pay the full amount plus a reconnection fee (typically $30) or pay at least one-third of the total amount owed plus the fee in order to enter into a payment affordability plan.

By the beginning of July, 4,500 households were without water. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Michigan Department of Human Services can even remove children from the home and place them in state custody after a water shutoff.

Over the past decade, water and sewage rates have risen 119%. Meanwhile, Detroit’s rate of unemployment is estimated at 50% and its poverty rate is around 40%. In 2006, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization proposed a water affordability program for low-income residents with an initial funding level of $5 million to the Detroit City Council. The City Council approved only a limited version of this proposal. But the water department’s program–established though the monthly voluntary donations of other customers–requires residents to jump through considerable hoops to obtain aid. Additionally, information on the website is in English only.

The reality is that the city water department is one of Detroit’s jewels. It has developed over 150 years and serves not just the city, but 40% of SE Michigan. However, various mayors have outsourced parts of the department over the last dozen years. This has delayed maintaining the infrastructural operations. A report commissioned in 2012 called for reducing the work force by 80%, replacing them with contractual workers. Now Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager, wants to privatize or “regionalize” the system (meaning Detroit would lose control).

The Peoples Water Board Coalition, a group of Detroit activists, issued an open letter in June challenging both the shutoffs and the lack of transparency about the future of the water system. Water is a human right and water from the Great Lakes is held as public trust. They demand immediate cessation of the shutoffs, restoration of households who had been shut off, and implementation of a meaningful water affordability plan.

In response, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a press release that stated human rights law requires governments to take urgent measures–including financial assistance–to ensure access to essential water and sanitation: “The households which suffered unjustified disconnections must be immediately reconnected.”

Detroit area residents make the connections at a recent protest–from Gaza to Detroit, water is a human right!

Meanwhile, DWSD has been investigating shut off accounts to see if the household had been “stealing water.” Of the 178 investigated, they determined that 79 accounts had been and stated they would be slapped with a $250 fee for the first offense, $500 for the second, and $660 for the third. The fee would have to be paid in full before the department would work with the resident to get their water turned back on.

Bankruptcy Judge Rhodes dressed down Darryl Latimer, the DWSD deputy director, saying “Your residential shutoff program has caused not only a lot of anger in the city and also a lot of hardship.” Rhodes demanded that Latimer return to court on Monday with updates on what the city is doing to alert residents that they are in danger of being shut off, and to advise them of the affordability plan that is available. Meanwhile, Kevyn Orr’s office had no comment on this development.

This is not the first time there have been massive water shutoffs, but coming on top of all the other issues we are facing under bankruptcy, some broader attention is finally being paid to the problem. Some organizations have set up Emergency Water Stations and Canadians living on the other side of the Detroit River are planning on bringing over water supplies. Last week, about 50 demonstrators blocked the Homrich trucks from coming out of their lot, and several were arrested.

In Detroit Eviction Defense, where I’ve been active, we discussed how we want to concentrate on helping people in various neighborhoods protect themselves from these turnoffs. Since we are currently working in Southwest Detroit, a predominately Mexican American section of the city, and are leafleting and putting up “Justice Not Eviction” signs in English and Spanish, we’ll also be talking about the water shutoffs and holding a community meeting at the end of the week.

National Nurses United has initiated a “Turn on the Water! Tax Wall Street” demonstration on Friday, July 18, in downtown Detroit. It will assemble outside the Cobo Convention Center on Washington Blvd. and W. Congress, then march to Hart Plaza (just across the street from City Hall) for a rally. The nurses declare “a public health emergency and demand a moratorium on the unprecedented water shutoffs in Detroit.”

Control the land, control the water, and shut down the public schools and community centers: that’s the method of driving more and more people out of the city, while gentrifying a small portion, and it’s exactly what has been pursued by the capitalists and their “emergency management” regime in Detroit. But we’re not going to go along with it!

For those who don’t live in Detroit, you can help by drafting letters of protest to the contacts below:

  • Sue McCormick, Director, Detroit Water & Sewerage Department, 735 Randolph, Detroit, Michigan, call 313.964.9477, fax 313.964.9370, or e-mail
  • Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, 2 Woodward Avenue, Suite 1126, Detroit, MI 48226, call 313.224-3400.
  • Governor Rick Snyder (who appointed Kevyn Orr), P.O, Box 30013, Lansing, Michigan 48909, phone 517.335.7858, fax 517.335.6863.
  • UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, e-mail Civil Society Section:

Dianne Feeley is a member of Solidarity in Detroit. She is a retired autoworker, an active member of Detroit Eviction Defense, and author of an essay in the recently published book, Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA.