Detroit’s poorest vent anger at authorities who have turned water off

America Letter: water department $6 billion in debt struggling in bankrupt US city

A protest against the mass water shut-offs in Detroit. Photograph: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

A protest against the mass water shut-offs in Detroit. Photograph: Reuters/Rebecca Cook


They’re easy to spot. A streak of neon blue paint on the footpaths outside identifies the homes in Detroit that haven’t paid their water bills. To some, the blue paint, sprayed next to valves by the city water department’s shut-off technicians, is a mark of shame, not knowing they are in the same stressed position as thousands of others.

More than 15,000 of Detroit’s poorest residents have had their water shut off as the city tries to recoup $89 million on unpaid bills, part of a wider austerity drive aimed at trying to turn around the fortunes of The US’s 18th most populous city. Detroit made history last year, becoming the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy as the city’s finances collapsed under the weight of more than $18 billion in debt.

In a city designed to function with a population two million people, Detroit’s 700,000 population can no longer pay the city’s way. The majestic art-deco skyscrapers and masterpiece-filled art institute, a target for the city’s creditors, are reminders of Detroit’s once illustrious past as “Motor City”, the hub of a booming car industry. Now, even the flow of water is not guaranteed.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which services about 43 per cent of Michigan’s population, is shouldering $6 billion in debt. In a week when water charges were set for Irish households and new data showed the deepening scale of California’s three-year drought, the experience of Detroit on the Great Lakes, the US’s largest expanse of fresh water, shows the high cost of water.

Shut-off notice

Avatara Qtub’s first water bill at her new address amounted to $1,000. It came with a shut-off notice at the start of last month, a day after she moved into her new house near Eight Mile, the Detroit suburb immortalised in the 2002 film starring rapper Eminem.

It takes the 62-year-old mother of nine about two weeks to earn $1,000 as a health worker and holistic nutritionalist for the ill.

“I don’t have $1,000 but I have to pay it one way or another, otherwise they are going to come to cut the water off,” said Qtub (62).

The city suspended the shut-offs last month to allow people time to prove their inability to pay amid national and international uproar after thousands of residents protested. US judge Steven Rhodes, who presides over Detroit’s bankruptcy, criticised the city’s handling of delinquent accounts, while the United Nations also denounced the cut-offs, saying water is a human right.

“The water is not the issue,” said Qtub. “The issue is the right to an adequate standard of living and that includes water and sanitation.”

Residents have been enraged by the decision not to pursue corporate customers who owe millions of dollars on their accounts.

“There is a disparity between the treatment of the people who need help and the corporations who get help all the time,” said Qtub.

People are losing water for as little as $150 of debt, forcing families to keep jugs of water next to toilets and rely on bottled water.

Swingeing cuts

The cut-offs are on top of swingeing cuts: retired city workers have seen their pensions cut by a fifth and health benefit subsidies slashed.

“It is a very egregious assault on people in vulnerable positions,” said Shea Howell, a professor at a university outside Detroit and a member of the People’s Water Board, a coalition of community groups.

For people living from paycheck to paycheck, paying a water bill means forgoing payment on another bill such as for electricity or gas.

“It is just part of being poor in Detroit that you cannot pay all of your bills,” said Jennifer Teed, an art teacher who in her spare time runs an emergency hotline number set up to help residents. Last week Teed answered a call from a mother of five who had her water turned off during the city’s 15-day shut-off moratorium.

An environmental group from West Virginia, where pollution robbed the water supply of some residents earlier this year, delivered 1,000 gallons of bottled water to Detroit residents this week in an act of solidarity. Last month, Canadian water rights activists delivered 750 gallons of tap water in a seven-vehicle convoy.

On Tuesday, responding to the water crisis, Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy, handed over control of the water department to the city’s mayor Mike Duggan.

“When some Detroit residents don’t pay their bills, those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters,” he said.

Community activists hope they can apply greater pressure on Duggan as an elected official to extend the moratorium beyond Tuesday, though some lament his failure to understand that this is not a crisis of “won’t-pays” but of “can’t-pays” in one of the poorest US cities.

“They have already blinked twice, first with the moratorium and second, with the decision to put Duggan in charge,” said Howell. “They are feeling the pressure and they will continue to feel that pressure until they turn the water back on.”

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