Rights Groups Condemn Detroit Water Shutoffs

Leaders seek an immediate halt to suspensions of water service while “a fair, humane and meaningful review process could be implemented to help indigent residents.”

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Demonstrators protest against policies of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on July 18, 2014, in Detroit. The utility has cut off water to thousands of city residents who are behind on their bills.  

Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Responding to a widening water crisis in Detroit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. on Friday appealed to city officials to place an immediate moratorium on water shutoffs while “a fair, humane and meaningful review process can be evaluated and implemented to help indigent residents.”

A letter [pdf] from the groups helps to map out a plan to protect residents who cannot pay for the service.

“It is unconscionable for city officials to create a humanitarian crisis without regard for the poor, children, elderly and those with special needs by denying water to them,” Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director, said in a statement released with the letter. 

“The problems facing the city’s water department go far deeper than those created by individual residents,” Moss continued in the statement. “City officials are misrepresenting a complex situation and perpetuating harmful stereotypes that are a disservice to the City. Low-income city residents should not be forced to pay the mounting cost of disastrous bond deals, crumbling infrastructure, and a dwindling population.”

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) in March began dispatching private contractors to shut off water service to residents who are more than 60 days delinquent or owe more than $150, the groups’ letter says. Although 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the shutoffs began without a plan to help those who cannot pay. 

The ACLU of Michigan and the NAACP said in the accompanying statement that it is illegal under international and U.S. laws to deny poor people access to vital resources. “At its core, the right to have access to water is the right to have life—and is thus a fundamental right that cannot be taken away because a person, or in the case of children, their parents, lack the ability to pay,” the groups argue.

Additionally, they argue, “the poorly implemented and uneven DWSD shut-off policy violates the due process rights of residents,” saying it fails to provide them with adequate notice and a hearing that takes into account their ability to pay. 

“It is simply not acceptable for ... residents of a major American city to be denied access to water,” said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president and director-counsel of NAACP LDF. “Every resident of Detroit is entitled to humane treatment and respect, irrespective of their economic status. We sincerely hope, and expect, that the city will reverse its ‘turn-off’ policy and restore water to all its residents.”

Under pressure in July, the city reinstated a financial assistance program—the Detroit Resident Water Assistance Program—which had been investigated and criticized in 2010 by the Office of the Auditor General for a host of deficiencies. However, those  with no income, arguably the most vulnerable residents, are excluded from participating in this program, the letter says.  

 About a year ago, the city became the largest municipality to file for bankruptcy, citing debts and projected long-term liabilities of $18 billion.

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