Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Detroit water payments should be income based

Gloria House and Shea Howell 

According to the newly created Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), nearly 36,000 households in Detroit are facing water shut-offs as soon as the weather clears.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is targeting commercial accounts first with an outstanding debt of about $20 million.

In the same breath, however, they list another “first:” They will permanently shut off 8,355 households that have turned their own water back on. Calling these “illegal hookups,” the water department is trying to criminalize desperation.

The fact that people have been driven to this extreme step, along with 26,000 other households behind on bills, is clear evidence of the inadequacy of Mayor Mike Duggan’s assistance programs.

Clearly, Detroiters are still struggling despite the celebratory tone that greeted the end of official bankruptcy proceedings. The sheer numbers of people slated for shut off should have been a wake up call to city leaders last year. It’s long past time for the water affordability plan (WAP) to be implemented. The WAP adjusts payments based on the reality of people’s income. It would keep the water and the revenue flowing.

The rationale for resistance to the WAP shows up in the minutes of the GLWA meeting and it isn’t pretty.

The goal of the aggressive shutoffs is “changing the culture regarding the responsibility to pay for service.”

But the only way a sentence like that can make sense is if you believe there is a current culture where people are irresponsible and not willing to pay for their services.

This is the same belief that Detroiters are not paying water bills or property taxes because, as former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said, we are “dumb, lazy, happy and rich.” Bill Nowling, then Orr’s spokesman, tried to get him out of that comment by saying he believed the comments were “about the attitude of the body politic of the city of Detroit, not Detroiters themselves.”

Such nonsensical distinctions are offered to cover the deep-seated racism that characterizes the attitude of many people toward Detroiters.

This attitude pathologizes the people of Detroit. It casts us as deficient, ignores our history, denies our humanity, and disrespects and diminishes our lives. It functions to blind the public to both the pain and the strengths of the city.

Most Detroiters know that we not only work hard, but we often do the hardest work. With the disappearance of jobs and capital, we have been struggling to create new ways of living and working together.

We have a long history of “making a way out of no way.”

We pay our bills.

In fact, we have willingly voted ourselves the highest taxes in the state in order to provide for our schools, parks, community colleges, museums, zoo and art programs.

Now with jobs gone, pay cuts, pension cuts, increasing medical bills, increasing heating bills, the highest water rates in the state, predatory lending, overinflated property taxes and auto insurance more than double that of the suburbs, people are scrambling to keep home and hearth together.

That is why a water affordability plan, based on percentage of income, is the only sane response to the impending shut-offs of an additional 28,000 homes.

Gloria House and Shea Howell are members of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management.

Friday, February 13, 2015

International human rights network intervenes in case challenging large-scale disconnection of water supply to tens of thousands of low-income residents in Detroit

The International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), a global network of over 220 groups and 50 individual advocates from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights, has requested leave from the U.S. District Court to be recognized as amicus curiae1 in the case of Lyda et al. v. City of Detroit2 in support of residents challenging the City of Detroit’s decision to cut off water supply to thousands of households unable to pay their bills.

 As detailed in the plaintiffs’ complaint, by the end of August 2014 the City of Detroit had disconnected approximately 30,000 households of low-income persons and persons living in poverty from the municipal water supply and sewerage service, leaving them without access to drinking water and water for toilets and basic sanitation.

ESCR-Net, through its amicus brief, seeks to bolster the plaintiffs’ legal challenge by highlighting that the disconnections for inability to pay violate a range of legal obligations applicable to the U.S. under key international human rights treaties.

At the same time, ESCR-Net contends that Detroit’s City Charter, which includes a Declaration of Rights recognizing rights to water, sanitation and decent housing, must be respected. Pursuant to long-established principles of both U.S. law and international law, relevant domestic law must be interpreted consistently with treaty obligations.

Chris Grove, Executive Director of ESCR-Net, said, “Access to justice is required for violations of human rights, and we welcome the opportunity to assist the U.S. District Court with material relevant to consideration of the issues at stake. These issues impact the health, security and human dignity of thousands of Detroit residents and implicate our vision of a just society.”

 “A number of human rights are arguably violated by these disconnections, including rights to water, sanitation, adequate housing, health, life, freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment, and non-discrimination. The international human rights obligations of the U.S. also apply to the City of Detroit, and these obligations require that denial of access to water be reversed immediately,” he added.

The City of Detroit’s water disconnection policy has shocked the international community and has prompted, among other reactions, the visit of two United Nations Special Procedures human rights experts to assess the situation in October 2014.3 Despite the onset of winter, local groups report that the City has continued water shut-offs at the homes of low-income families, the elderly, and the infirmed.

It is hoped that the application of international human rights law will help the plaintiffs achieve a just and effective remedy, including renewed access to water and an end to any further disconnections.

A copy of the amicus curiae brief is available at

About ESCR-Net ESCR-Net is the largest global network of human rights organizations, grassroots groups and advocates working to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all. Please visit

This action is being led by ESCR-Net Strategic Litigation Working Group members Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia), the Global Initiative on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR), the Social Rights Advocacy Centre (SRAC), and the Social Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI).

For information regarding this amicus intervention, contact:
• Susie Talbot. Senior Legal Officer (ESCR-Net)
• Bret Thiele, Co-Executive Director (GI-ESCR) (Tel. +1-218-269-0214)

For information on the situation in Detroit or to speak with residents, contact:
• Michigan Welfare Rights Organization Marian Kramer (313-471-9241), Maureen Taylor (313-729-5558) or Sylvia Orduño (734-846-9465). Office Tel. +1-313-964-0618

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Press Statement on Need for Citizen’s Community Representative to Great Lakes Regional Water Authority (GLWA) from Detroit

Detroit, MI -- Oversight of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) will be transferred in the next few months to a regional authority, the Great Lakes Regional Water Authority (GLRWA). It will consist of representatives from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties, the State of Michigan, and the City of Detroit.

The Detroit People’s Water Board Coalition disagrees with the decision to transfer oversight of the DWSD to the GLRWA for several reasons, including: (1) the detrimental effect it will have on Detroit residents who continue to bear the burden of infrastructure costs without full system control; (2) the failure by local authorities to implement the 2005 Water Affordability Plan which provides for low income affordable payment plans and conservation efforts; (3) the circumvention of democratic proceedings in the development of the GLRWA; (4)  the failure of all parties to protect water as a human right and as a public trust. (See the Statement on the proposed Great Lakes Water Authority) (5) the continued threat of privatization of Great Lakes water, which should be held in common; and (6) the implicit entitlement  by the GLRWA to assume DWSD ownership rights after the Detroit-paid water system was expanded at the request of suburban communities to serve their needs.

Notwithstanding our opposition to the formation of a regional water authority and the 40-year lease of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, GLRWA appointments have already been made from Oakland and Macomb counties. To the extent that the DWSD and City of Detroit decide to go forward without the vote and consent of the people of Detroit, it is imperative that community-based representation on and appointments to the GLRWA take place for Detroit and Wayne County.

The Mayor of Detroit has not yet appointed two representatives from Detroit, nor have the Governor and the Wayne County Executive. Given the water shutoff and affordability crises, the Detroit People’s Water Board Coalition proposes that citizen input and protection be included in the process. In order to accomplish this, we believe that: (1) Detroit City Council needs to create an ordinance that establishes a GLRWA Detroit Citizens Advisory Board whose membership is selected from community-based water experts. The People’s Water Board has candidates to submit. (2) One of the two Detroit appointees by the Mayor to the GLRWA should be from the GLRWA Detroit Citizens Advisory Board.  The purpose of the Advisory Board is to protect the rights of Detroit citizens related to water affordability, and to review complaints/appeals from Detroit customers of the GLRWA.

Since 2013 over 50,000 residential households have had their water shut off. At this time, as many as 36,324 people in the city of Detroit continue to live without running water in their homes (per research by Food & Water Watch). The Mayor’s Ten Point Plan does not adequately provide for the human right to water for all Detroit residents, especially the most vulnerable, including low-income households with babies and children, seniors and persons with disabilities. Human life is threatened and illness results when there is no water in a home.

United Nations Special Rapporteurs who visited Detroit in October 2014 stated that governments bear the responsibility to ensure that water is provided for its most vulnerable citizens. “The City of Detroit should restore water connections to residents unable to pay and to vulnerable groups of people including those with disabilities, the chronically ill, and households with small children,” stressed Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water. Ms. Leilani Farha, U.N. Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, added “Every effort should be made by all levels of government to ensure that the most vulnerable are not evicted from or lose their housing as a result of water shut-offs or water bill arrears. Where an individual or family is rendered homeless due to water shut-offs, the city of Detroit must have in place emergency services to ensure that alternate accommodation with running water is available.”

The Special Rapporteurs recalled that the United States is bound by international human rights law, including the right to life as well as the right to non-discrimination concerning housing, water and sanitation and the highest attainable standard of health. “These obligations apply to all levels of Government – federal, state and municipal,” Ms. de Albuquerque and Ms. Farha underscored. (See U.N. press statement on Detroit.)

We believe this cruel disregard for the human rights and very survival of thousands of Detroiters is a direct result of the lack of democracy in the governance of the city and its water system. We demand that water service be restored to all Detroiters immediately and that democracy policies be added to the GLRWA by following the recommendations we outlined above.

Members of the Detroit People’s Water Board Coalition

AFSCME Local 207
Baxter's Beat Back the Bullies Brigade
Conscious Community Cooperative
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Detroit Eviction Defense
Detroit Greens
Building Movement Peoples Platform
Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management
East Michigan Environmental Action Council
Food and Water Watch
Great Lakes Bioneers - Detroit
Highland Park Human Rights Coalition
Matrix Theater Company
Michigan Coalition for Human Rights
Michigan Welfare Rights Organization
Moratorium NOW
Rosa Parks Institute
Sierra Club
Sisters of Mercy
Small Ville Sustainable Community Farm
The Raiz Up
Voices for Earth Justice
We the People of Detroit