Detroit Shuts Off Water For 1,000 Poor Residents Despite City Council’s Call To Stop

CREDIT: Bryce Covert/ThinkProgress

Protesters at a rally against Detroit's water shutoffs last year

The Detroit Water and Sewage Department began shutting off water to about 1,000 delinquent accounts on Tuesday, against the wishes of the city council.

The department would not make the exact number of households affected available. It distributed about 3,000 door hangers earlier in the month warning residents that they had ten business days to get on a payment plan or risk having their water turned off. About 800 signed up for the plans, which allow them to keep their water on if they can stay current on their bills. But many who sign up eventually fall behind again, as the average bill is about $75 but the average past due amount is $755.

The shutoffs come after the city council passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on May 12, asking the department to wait until the assistance plans could be evaluated and a subsidy program could be put in place to help people before they fall behind on their bills. The shutoffs had been briefly paused last summer amid widespread protests and a statement from the United Nations condemning them, but the judge overseeing the city’s bankruptcy dismissed residents’ request to impose a six-month moratorium in September.

There are nearly 65,000 delinquent accounts in the city that owe $150 or more in water bills and are at least two months late, collectively owing $48.9 million. The cost of water has risen significantly for city residents over the last decade, shooting up 119 percent with another 8.7 percent hike approved last year. The city’s $5 billion in borrowing tied to the water department was one big piece of its bankruptcy ordeal, a plan for which got final approval in November, fueling the decision to go after delinquent accounts.

There are two different ways to assist people struggling to pay their water bills. The current model is assistance based, giving discounts to people who are already behind to help them pay. But critics of this approach say it doesn’t help people avoid delinquency or do enough to keep people from defaulting from their payment plans. Instead, they want to see an affordability plan put into place that was approved by the city council in 2006 but never implemented. That plan would have set water rates between 2 and 3 percent of a resident’s income, rather than a flat rate. The water department contests that it can’t charge people less than the cost of service because it would end up raising rates for others.

Critics have also argued that the city has done more to go after delinquent residential water accounts than to shut off service to commercial ones. The department has contested that but has not yet provided a break down of whose water has been shut off.

Many more shutoffs could be in the future for city residents. The 3,000 households that got shutoff warnings were randomly generated by a computer system, but 18,000 total are in shutoff status. The limited number of notices were sent out due to manpower restraints, the water department said.

Detroit isn’t the only city cracking down on delinquent water accounts. Last month, Baltimore began shutting off water to the 25,000 households that owed $250 or more, cutting service to more than 1,600 in six weeks. The city has also increased water rates significantly, hiking them 42 percent over the last two years, with an 11 percent increase to take effect in July. But as in Detroit, commercial accounts are being treated differently than residential ones. While more than a third of the city’s total unpaid bills stem from 369 businesses that owe $15 million collectively, none of them have gotten their service turned off; all of the disruption has been for homes.