A worker from Homrich talks to a resident on Aug. 27, 2014, in Detroit after turning their water back on. It was disconnected by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which disconnected water to thousands of Detroit residents with delinquent bills.
Photo: Joshua Lott (Getty Images)

The Detroit water department will resume its controversial practice of shutting off residents’ water next month, putting around 17,461 households in the city at risk of losing water.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Detroit’s water and sewerage director, Gary Brown, said the number is actually an improvement.

“When I got here, 50,000 people were at risk of being shut off and 44,000 were actually shut off,” Brown told the Free Press. “The United Nations was here, people were picketing, and rightly so, saying this was inhumane and unfair.”

The announcement reignites the divide over Detroit’s practice of shutting off water. Brown maintained that progress had been made and “every single residential customer has a path to not have service interruption.” He also told the Free Press that in all likelihood, once notices go out and payment plans are set up between residents and the water department, the shutoff would end up affecting about 2,000 households—a fraction of the current delinquent accounts.

The average past-due amount for water bills is $663, according to Brown.

But opponents of the shutoff program say that the city should instead focus on creating a water-affordability plan. Some have proposed making water bills more affordable for residents by capping bills according to household income.

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As Meeko Williams—chief director of Hydrate Detroit, which provides emergency water deliveries and water restoration to Detroit families—told the Free Press, “Affordability should be the No. 1 concern.”

“Why are those 17,000 at risk? What have you [the city] done to engage them?” Williams asked. “Right now, nothing will change and nothing will happen until you give the people affordable water.”

Monica Lewis-Patrick—president and CEO of We the People of Detroit, an advocacy group that fights for water equity, among other issues—pointed out that some households have gone years without having their water service restored.

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“It really makes me emotional because we’re at three-and-a-half years of delivering water [to residents impacted by shutoffs],” Lewis-Patrick told the Detroit paper. “I have families who haven’t been restored water for over three years, so I know there are families out there that we do not know of. How bad does it have to get for this city and for this state to adopt a water-sustainability plan?”