As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department moves to shut off water to thousands of residents who are delinquent on their bills, a coalition of activists is appealing to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to intervene on behalf of the bankrupt city’s most vulnerable citizens.
Their report, filed Wednesday with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, alleges that the DWSD crackdown is part of an effort “to sweeten the pot for a private investor” to take over the city’s heavily-indebted water and sewer system as part of Detroit’s broader bankruptcy proceedings.
One of the activist groups behind the report, the Detroit People’s Water Board, notes that city residents have seen water rates more than double over the past decade at the same time that the city’s poverty rate rose to nearly 40 percent, putting the cost of basic running water beyond reach for tens of thousands of households. Earlier this week, city lawmakers voted to raise water rates by a further 8.7 percent.
Almost exactly 50 percent of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s 323,900 total accounts were delinquent as of March, according to the Detroit News (via Nexis), with a combined $175 million in unpaid water bills outstanding. The department announced at that time that it would begin an aggressive campaign of water shutoffs, and a DWSD spokesman said that it has shut off water to nearly 7,000 separate clients since the beginning of April. DWSD mailed warnings about the shutoffs in March, but the People’s Water Board report says that some residents it interviewed either never received a warning notice or had their water shut off before the payment deadline printed in the notices had passed.
One key piece of the activists’ complaint has to do with allegedly disparate treatment of residential and commercial clients by the DWSD. The People’s Water Board claims that delinquent business entities “have not been targeted in the same way as residential users,” a claim the department strongly disputes.
“There are no sacred cows. We aren’t discriminating in terms of individuals or businesses,” DWSD spokesman Bill Johnson said in an interview. “Last month we shut off about 3,600 accounts, both businesses and residential. Everybody is getting cut off who is $150 or 60 days in arrears. That is our policy and we’re ramping up our enforcement of that policy.”
The department has not yet had time to break out the data on water shutoffs by client category, Johnson said, but he hopes to be able to report exact figures on the number of business clients who have lost water access soon.
The DWSD’s roughly $5 billion in debts have turned out to be the most difficult piece of Detroit’s bankruptcy, after initially seeming to be on track for a rapid resolution. Neighboring counties have balked at absorbing the city system into a regional water and sewer authority, and subsequent plans to privatize the city’s water services have been criticized as too rapid, too costly, and too damaging to residents’ quality of life. The system’s massive backlog of delinquent bills makes it harder to convince anyone, whether private company or public authority, to shoulder the DWSD’s obligations. But if the water shutoffs were aimed at making the department look like a shinier prize in bankruptcy negotiations, they would likely be targeted at corporate clients directly, for the same reason that Depression-era gangsters robbed banks: that’s where the money is.
While the vast majority of the nearly 165,000 delinquent accounts reported in March are residential clients, those private households owe much smaller amounts than the commercial and industrial clients who are delinquent on their DWSD bills. Fewer than 11,000 delinquent accounts relate to commercial or industrial clients. But those delinquencies average more than $7,700 per business, according to the numbers published in the Detroit News in March, compared to an average debt of less than $600 per residential delinquency. Non-residential clients account for almost half of what DWSD is owed despite being less than 7 percent of total delinquencies, according to the March figures. The People’s Water Board obtained a document with more recent figures which shows a similar distribution of the delinquencies but lower total debts to DWSD as of May.
“We are asking the UN special rapporteur to make clear to the U.S. government that it has violated the human right to water,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and a key member of the coalition that put the report together. In addition to creating international pressure to stop the Detroit shutoffs, Barlow said, the UN’s intervention could lead to formal consequences for the United States. “If the US government does not respond appropriately this will also impact their Universal Periodic Review,” she said, “when they stand before the Human Rights Council to have their [human rights] record evaluated.” A request for comment from the UN official to whom the report was submitted went unanswered.
wow its getting pretty bad real fast around the world and at home. A few years ago if you would have said that Detroit would need help from the UN you would have been called crazy.
CREDIT: Bryce Covert/ThinkProgress
DETROIT, MI — “I feel like I’m in a nightmare.”
Wanda Hill, who worked for the city of Detroit for 30 years, held a sign up at a rally on Friday to protest the massive water shutoffs roiling the city’s low-income residents. “I’m a native Detroiter,” she told ThinkProgress. “I never thought I’d see this.”
In March, Detroit’s water department announced that it would start shutting off water service to 1,500 to 3,000 customers every week if they hadn’t paid their bills as the city moves through a bankruptcy process. Nearly half of the accounts are delinquent. In response, activists have appealed to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to intervene in recognition of the fact that water is a human right, and the UN has backed them up.
photo (3) CREDIT: Bryce Covert/ThinkProgress
“The water rate goes up every year but income is not rising,” Hill said. “You can never catch up.” The cost of water for the city’s residents has shot up 119 percent over the past decade and another 8.7 percent hike was approved for this year.
On Friday morning, about a dozen people blocked the entrance of one of the private contractors that has been doing some of the shutoffs for more than six hours. Police arrested nine of them, including Baxter Jones, a 65-year-old pensioner who uses a wheelchair. “The bravest souls are putting their bodies in front of trucks” going to shut off water, said Monica Lewis-Patrick, a candidate for the Detroit city council.
Lewis-Patrick spoke at a panel at Netroots Nation, a progressive conference that was also the site of the start of Friday’s rally and march later in the day. She described seniors who have gone without water for six months or even a year. Residents are trying to help each other out, providing bottled water and food to those going without water. Lewis-Patrick recalled one many this week who paid water bills for six of his neighbors “because he didn’t want them to hang their heads.”
She also noted that women have been at the forefront of the movement. A delegation of women “fought and have continuously been the guard against the privatization of Detroit,” she told the panel audience. Later in an interview with ThinkProgress, she added, “It’s basically been women that have led this fight for decades now, on issues of water, food, and land justice.” And they’ve been at it for a long time. “I’m one of the younger members,” she said. There are other women in their 60s and 70s fighting these fights.
According to Shae Howell, an activist of 40 years and resident of the city who was at Friday’s rally, activists have three simple demands: “We want an immediate turn on [of water service] for every single person, a moratorium on shutoffs, and the people’s plan enacted,” or the Water Affordability Program that was approved by the city council in 2006 but never implemented. She noted that “nearly half of the city was in arrears,” and “when half of the city can’t do something, it tells you it’s a systemic problem.”
photo (2) CREDIT: Bryce Covert/ThinkProgress
And activists are fighting against more than just the shutoffs. “The water issue is the tip of the spear,” Lewis-Patrick said. “The crisis is a systemic shutting people off from jobs, health care, and education.”
“There’s a lot of issues,” Wanda Hill said at the rally. “The water shutoff is one, the bankruptcy and Detroit retirees is another.” She’s equally concerned about what the bankruptcy agreement will end up meaning for her as a pensioner. “Personally I’m the matriarch of my household,” she said. She has three grandchildren. “They depend on us for financial support, mental support, knowledge, and wisdom. I have the wisdom and knowledge, but I can’t help financially.” She added, “At this point I’m concerned about sustaining my own lifestyle.”
“To balance the problems on the backs of pensioners is unconscionable,” she said.
Tijuana Morris, a 59-year-old retiree from the police department, is also worried. “When I went to the police department, I had a contract. They said pensions were guaranteed,” she said. Now, “they cut everybody’s insurance.” She has a disability and has to buy drugs for it. “We are between a rock and a hard part.”
And she’s just as upset about the water shutoffs. “What gives them the right to take water from people?” she asked. “Why do we have to go to the UN to get recognition? That’s wrong.”
Vera Magee, another pensioner who worked for the city for 33 years, also felt the issues are related. “You tried to take away our pensions, now you’re trying to take away our water,” she said. She voted to reject the bankruptcy agreement. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
what a damn mess, this is the type of situation that leads to riots.
You do what we say and we do what we wanna do.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft
Detroit residents are struggling to pay their water bills at such an alarming rate that the city’s utility announced a few months ago that it would cut off water for between 1,500 and 3,000 people every week. The situation has gotten so bad that the United Nations has had to step in and tell the city that such massive water shut-offs are a violation of human rights. People are desperate just to keep their taps turned on, as about half the city has fallen behind on its bills. As a resident recently told ThinkProgress, “when half of the city can’t do something, it tells you it’s a systemic problem.”
Now, an unlikely group seems to think it can step in and solve this systemic problem. PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, announced in a blog post on Thursday that it will offer financial assistance to 10 families who can’t afford their water bills — if the families go vegan, that is.
“[W]ith the help of a generous PETA member, we have come up with one small way to assist Detroit residents and save animals, too,” PETA writes in its post. “Thanks to this donor, PETA will be able to pay off the water bills for 10 families who commit to going vegan for one month. We’ll also help them get started by giving each family a basket of healthy vegan foods and recipes.”
The group asks people who are interested to take photos of their overdue bills and send them in along with a pledge to go vegan. It gives no indication of what it would do should someone accept the funding and then immediately start eating meat again.
While PETA is always on the lookout for the ethical treatment of animals, the group seems less interested in the ethical treatment of humans. PETA is notorious for gimmicks that are meant to get attention, often in lieu of respect for the people at the center of them. For example, women are often depicted naked, covered in “blood,” and trapped in cages for PETA promotional materials and events:
And in something of a patronizing side-note, PETA also adds that poor residents should take interest in the health effects of their vegan lifestyle. “The last thing that people who are struggling need is increased health-care costs,” the blog post says. “By accepting our offer to go vegan, not only will families be getting an immediate financial boost and helping animals, if they stick with it, they’ll also lower their risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and strokes.”
What PETA seems to miss in their vegan-as-a-bargaining-chip scheme is that it’s not easy for everyone to live on a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables like the kind PETA encourages. Some people — and especially lower-income residents like those in Deroit who are struggling to pay their bills — reside in food deserts where it’s not easy to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables all the time. Or they simply work too many jobs and still don’t have enough money to have the time to prepare fresh, unprocessed foods. In 2012, 18 million families in the U.S. were unable to get a sufficient amount of food to be healthy.