Why spend so much time commenting on Detroit? Because the city of more than 700,000 people is bankrupt, turning the water off on over one hundred thousand water customers, and now axing the contracts of nonprofit human service groups that have been providing safety net services for Detroit’s legions of poor people residing in devastated neighborhoods. Is there any hope?
Inell Byrd, a 41-year-old home health aide still living in Detroit’s North End, told New York Times writer James Eligon, “I know the city is coming back.” That was the concluding sentence of Eligon’s moving portrait of residents of the North End, east of the Woodward Corridor of Detroit, and how they are holding on as they watch their city fall apart beneath them. Even in Ms. Byrd’s case, the story is heart-wrenching. Working two jobs to take care of her retired husband, who cannot work due to having suffered two strokes, Ms. Byrd owes $4,500 in back taxes. She has contemplated selling her home, but she pulled the house off the market after getting mostly lowball offers from white buyers.
Eligon also writes about Banika Jones, a 34-year-old woman living in the North End. After overcoming suspicions of the white social activists coming into her neighborhood, she now volunteers with one of the white-led groups, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. Almost in passing, Eligon notes that Jones lives in a home with no electricity and no running water because, he says, she cannot afford to pay for utilities.
Despite the concerns that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was shutting off the water on poor people in violation of international human rights covenants, WDIV (Channel 4 in Detroit) reported over the weekend that the Water Department is going door-by-door, block-by-block shutting off this basic service on residents who are delinquent in their water payments—some 1,500 to 2,000 customers a week, according to WDIV. The city says that residents owe over $100 million in unpaid bills. Half of the city’s water customers owe more than $150, and the average unpaid water bill is $560.
Across the border, the view of the Hamilton Spectator is that Detroit is becoming like a “pioneer town,” with no water services for increasing numbers of hard-pressed residents. Although Nonprofit Quarterly was all over this story early on, commenting on the efforts of Detroit-area advocacy groups such as the People’s Water Coalition as well as Congressman John Conyers to bring this issue to the attention of Congress, the White House, and even the United Nations, the uptake by mainstream network and cable national TV news organizations has been slow. Finally, NBC Nightly News picked up the story just recently.
Something isn’t connecting on this story. Comments abound in various places that Detroiters who are behind on their water bills are getting what they deserve, that it’s time for Detroit to start getting people to pay their water bills, electricity bills, and property taxes. Somehow, the notion that water service is not a discretionary luxury purchase isn’t getting through.
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The actions or lack thereof of the government and the continued inhumanity shown by the water company here tells me this is all being done by design in order to privatize the water system here and drive out the poor and black residents. They want Detroit to fail. Any person with any semblance of humanity knows that something could be worked out in order to keep the water on. Water is a basic human right not a "product." Shame on the Obama administration for turning away from this crisis in our own country.
UPDATE 6-24-14 from Democracy Now:
Groups Appeal to UN for 'Humanity' as Detroit Shuts Off Water to Thousands
As thousands of people in Detroit go without water, and the city moves to cut off services to tens of thousands more, concerned organizations have taken the unusual step of appealing to the United Nations to intervene and protect the "human right to water."
“After decades of policies that put businesses and profits ahead of the public good, the city now has a major crisis on its hands, said Maude Barlow, founder of Blue Planet Project and board chair of Food & Water Watch, in a statement. “By denying water service to thousands, Detroit is violating the human right to water."
The Submission to the Special Rapporteur was released Wednesday by the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch.
It calls for the "state of Michigan and U.S. government to respect the human right to water and sanitation" and for shut-offs to be halted, services restored, and water to be made accessible and affordable.
The report comes on the heels of the Detroit's city council's Tuesday approval of an 8.7 percent increase in water rates, part of a long-standing trend that, according to Food & Water Watch, has seen prices increase 119 percent over the past decade.
This rate hike follows an announcement in March by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that it would start turning off water for accounts that are past due. According to a late May Director's Report from the DWSD, there were "44,273 shut-off notices sent to customers in April 2014" alone, resulting in "3,025 shut-offs for nonpayment, and additional collections of $400,000."
Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who was appointed to power by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in March 2013, has aggressively pursued privatization and austerity measures across the city. "Nothing is off the chopping block, including water utilities, which are being considered for regionalization, sale, lease, and/or public private partnership and are currently subject to mediation by a federal district judge," reads the report.
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Apartheid In Detroit: Water For Corporations/Not People
Bill and Hillary Clinton were up to their ears in more than $10 million worth of legal debt at the end of Clinton’s tenure as president. Donald Trump was bailed out of four bankruptcies. But Detroit residents are having a basic human right – the access to water – cancelled for being late on bills of $150.End of excerpt
In the spring, Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr ordered water shutoffs for 150,000 Detroit residents late on their bills. Orr is an unelected bureaucrat accountable only to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed Orr and several other “emergency managers” in largely poor, black communities like Detroit, Benton Harbor, Flint, and Highland Park, to make all financial decisions on behalf of local elected governments.
Orr’s plan will shut off water for 1,500 to 3,000 Detroit residents each week. Neither Orr nor Homrich, the contracting company Orr hired to shut off residents’ water, answered calls for interview requests.
Detroit citizens have been protesting the decision on the basis that water is a human right that cannot be denied to families who need it for cooking, bathing and flushing toilets. Many residents facing water shutoffs are currently on monthly payment plans with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), paying upwards of $160 per month as water rates continue to rise, and were given no prior notice that their water was about to be cut off. Last week, the Detroit City Council held a public hearing to discuss a proposed 4 percent hike in water rates.
“The families I’ve talked to in my neighborhood and others around the city are confused about why they’re being hit (in this way),” community activist Russ Bellant told the Michigan Citizen. “Some knew they were behind, but thought they’d have time to pay it. These are people who mow the lawn on the vacant lots next door (to them).”
As the Michigan Citizen reported, residents with delinquent water bills are losing their water while prominent Detroit corporations with much larger delinquent water bills are being left alone. The Palmer Park Golf Club owes $200,000. Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings, owes DWSD $80,000. Ford Field owes $55,000. Kevyn Orr is arguing that the shutoffs are necessary to pay for the DWSD infrastructure – yet when Detroit raised $1 billion in bonds to pay for new infrastructure, $537 million of it went to banks like JPMorgan Chase, UBS and Morgan Stanley to pay off interest instead.
Community activists are placing blame on the structural, institutionalized poverty in Detroit that forces the people to foot the bill for corporate mismanagement. Detroit’s bankruptcy and urban blight is a direct result of the housing bubble that burst, putting over 60,000 homes in foreclosure and rendering thousands of families homeless.
Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of Quicken Loans who is financing much of the gentrified development of downtown Detroit, has been particularly blamed for his company’s role in exacerbating the foreclosure crisis through its intimidation of homeowners, pressuring them into risky subprime lending schemes.
“Instead of going after the corporate institutions who owe millions, they’d rather turn off the water for poor people,” said Demeeko Williams, an organizer with Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management.
Outrageous. Yet, nothing in the corporate media, but why would there be? This country is run by corporations. We bail out GM, we bail out insurance companies, we bail out banks, we bail out Wall Street. However, for those too poor to afford increased water bills? Oh no, YOU are on your own. I doubt appealing for "humanity" to the UN when it is obvious they cannot even show that in climate negotiations will bear any fruit. I would hope I am wrong at least about that. Where is our govt? The state? Where is Obama now? He was recently involved in interceding to send striking workers back to their jobs, but now can't even say one word in defense of the people here to bring their water back? Do you get the feeling that there is really no difference between parties in DC?
Regardless of what anyone says about money water is a public trust that all humans need for life and health. Attempts to cut off this source of life and health by any entity deeming to own it is a breach of that public trust and the commons. I really don't have much faith that the UN will do anything. I do however hope the people of Detroit raise hell because this constant abuse of the poor and middle class in America to pay for political and corporate mismanagement and corruption needs to end now.
Tell Detroit To Turn The Taps Back On