Poor Detroit turns off water for residents

The city of Detroit  shut off water for  thousands of customers who cannot afford to pay the water bill.  (Detroit photo by Bernt Rostad, Image by Open icons)
The city of Detroit shut off water for thousands of customers who cannot afford to pay the water bill. (Detroit photo by Bernt Rostad, Image by Open icons)

You may remember Detroit; it’s the city that was in the news in 2008 when all the American auto companies except Ford went downhill and the government had to bail them out. The entire city filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy in July of last year and was granted it. Detroit has been frozen by the media as a sort of poster child for a country still emerging from a deep financial recession.

To be clear, they’re shutting off the water for poor people. Detroit News reported that more than 15,000 households and counting have had their taps turned off for being past due. Yet the bankrupt city hasn’t touched 40 businesses that owe $9.5 million in total. Under the city’s new emergency management, the department began an aggressive campaign to shut water off to unpaid accounts.

There are neighborhoods in Detroit where people are so poor they can’t pay their water bills. They don’t have jobs because there aren’t any jobs they can get; the economy in Detroit is terrible if you’re blue collar. These workers can’t leave to get a job elsewhere, because they don’t have any money. The U.S. Census Bureau states that Detroit’s poverty level currently stands at 40 percent.

The first thing that happens in such communities is those who can leave, leave. They go to another city and get jobs. That, in turn, depletes the community’s tax base further, which will then increase the strain on the public budget and serves to generally drive out more businesses as less trade is being conducted. Finally, you have two things; a meager infrastructure and poor people who can’t leave.

In Detroit, the demands of Chapter 9 Bankruptcy require that the city pay its creditors back. They haven’t been able to wipe the slate clean. Instead, in order to satisfy the demands of their debtors, they’re forced to squeeze the city which includes raising residential water costs. These water costs have increased by 119 percent over the last 10 years, a massive increase.

According to the Detroit News, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ ruling from the bench found no constitutional right to water service and agreed with city officials that a suspension would encourage more people not to pay their bills, leading to potentially large drops in revenue at a crucial time for the Detroit Water and Sewage Department.

This campaign is inhumane and the lack of clean water will create a public health threat. According to the Declaration of Independence, Americans have the right to life, liberty and happiness. In addition, the Constitution states Americans have the right to freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to practice religion, the long list goes on. Out of all those, how did the framers of these documents neglect to include a human right to water?

The banks own the city and run it. They determine who gets to drink water and who doesn’t. They determine which neighborhoods live and ones which die, and they decide who, and what, is valuable and can be saved. Thirsty babies may cry and the elderly may pass, but the bank will have its money.

Thousands of other residents are in danger of losing their water too, but businesses in Detroit who owe hundreds of thousands of dollars have not been disconnected, Detroit Water and Sewage Department records show.

According to a department list, the top accounts which are past due total $9.5 million. Meanwhile, stories of residential shutoffs abound homes are entering foreclosure since Detroit water bills are included in property taxes.

In March, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department announced it was going after delinquent accounts after a reprieve this past winter. The city is bankrupt after all, and looking for revenue where it can. In March, about half of the department’s customers are at least 60 days past due which amounted to $118 million in charges, the Daily Beast confirms.

Mary Chapman, from the Daily Beast, reports if non-residents debt, which amounts $9.5 million, were divided, each resident deprived of water would total $625 each. In early July, 250 customers were issued 10-day shutoff notices. A substantial number of business have been excused from the debt and the department in charge of severing water services is not able to say how many commercial customers have had their services cut off.

The shutoffs are a sign of the city’s long-running financial mismanagement. They’re a sign of the city’s painful efforts to govern itself responsibly again. They’re a sign of double standards and terrible choices, of costs assumed differently by corporate debtors and local residents. They’re also a sign of Detroiters whose standard of living in a U.S. city looks like that out of the Third World.