Water shutoffs are affecting huge swathes of a city that can’t afford to pay, prompting nearly 80 people to steal water. Is urban renewal worth the costs?
Dewilda Hershey moved into her home in Detroit’s west side last year, and since then, she says she’s been contacting the city’s water company to get a bill.
“The hold time is ridiculous. One time I was on hold for an hour and a half,” she told Detroit’s WDIV-TV.
Without warning and without ever sending Hershey a bill, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department recently shut off her water. When she reached the department on the phone, Hershey was told she owes $700 — an amount she simply cannot afford to pay.
“I could see if I was one of the ones that didn’t pay the bill, but I was trying to get a bill,” Hershey said.
It wasn’t until after WDIV-TV aired the story about Hershey’s dilemma that the water department finally reached out to her to set up a payment plan.
Hershey’s story is one of many that detail the consequences of Detroit’s attempts to emerge from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. After years of mismanagement and a lack of enforcement, the office of the emergency manager pressured the city’s water department to collect on overdue accounts. This resulted in the city shutting off water access to more than 17,000 residential and small business customers — many of whom are poor or living in poverty. While the city justified the move as necessary to recoup the millions in lost revenue these accounts represent, the disconnections represent a humanitarian crisis that has gained the attention of the international community.
Access to clean drinking water is considered a basic human right. In his foreword for the River Network, former President Jimmy Carter wrote, “Clean water is a basic human right. Without it, the other rights may not even matter. Human societies cannot be healthy, prosperous and just without adequate supplies of clean water. What could be a more basic right than clean water?”
In a statement issued in June, the United Nations echoed Carter’s sentiment. “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” wrote Catarina de Albuquerque, Leilani Farha and Philip Alston, special rapporteurs to the United Nations’ Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”
A dying city
Detroit’s decision to shut off water to those who are either more than 60 days late in payment or who owe more than $150 has cast a questionable light on the actions of the office of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, whose tenure is scheduled to expire in September.
While issues of austerity and non-local control have plagued the controversial move to establish an emergency manager for Detroit, questions on how the city will move forward and regroup for the future bear heavy. With the city population shrinking by more than 25 percent from 2000 to 2010, and more than 60 percent from 1950 to 2010, the redevelopment of the city’s tax base is a central issue behind any plans toward establishing financial solvency for the city.
Detroit has been described as a ghost town, with large sections of the city being allowed to grow wild. More than half of the residential lots in many neighborhoods stand abandoned and urban decay represents a real barrier to any significant recovery. Detroit currently has more than 31,000 empty houses, 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots.
“Downtown still looks like a downtown, and all of those high-rise buildings still make an impressive skyline, but when you look closely at some of them, you can see trees growing out of the ledges and crevices,” wrote Rebecca Solnit for Harper’s in 2007.
“Local wisdom has it that whenever a new building goes up, an older one will simply be abandoned, and the same rule applies to the blocks of new condos that have been dropped here and there among the ruins.”
The question of urban renewal
The way forward, some argue, is to clear out the neighborhoods with the largest concentrations of abandoned homes for urban renewal. The problem in this lies in the fact that these areas tend to house the city’s poorest residents. Questions of how to remove residents from the city’s most-sparsely populated areas have burdened city planners since the 1940s, but Detroit’s bankruptcy has made a buy-out of the targeted properties both a political and economic impossibility.
It can be argued that the water cutoffs, which have been concentrated in these highly-deserted areas, could be a de facto means of forcing recalcitrant residents to move. As it becomes politically more difficult to justify servicing all of Detroit’s 139 square miles for a population slightly more than a third of what it was at its peak, concerns regarding how to shrink the city’s footprint are increasingly becoming relevant.
“I don’t believe with the city’s current size it is viable trying to deliver resources to maybe one house on a block,” said state Sen. Rick Jones, who would support scaling back Detroit’s city limits. “Detroit has enough land mass for 3 million people, and it has shrunk down to 700,000.”
Talking to MintPress News, Albert Goldson, the executive director of global advisory service Indo-Brazilian Associates LLC, argued that Detroit’s water cutoffs may be significant toward long-term planning for the city.
“The key question to the Detroit water crisis disproportionately impacting the poor, as with any urban crisis, is who stands to benefit in the long-term?” he said. “The old investment saying goes that one should invest when there’s blood running in the streets. In this case, it’s lack of water.”
He went on to argue that these utility shut-off policies are “meant more to harm than help,” comparing it to a landlord manipulating utilities to force a rent-controlled tenant out in favor of one willing to pay the market rate.
“Even in the most dire financial problems in developing country urban centers, utilities still function at least part of the day in the form of rolling blackouts. For Detroit, in a first world country with plentiful access to water from the Great Lakes, the water is turned off completely based solely on economic considerations.”
For a sizable part of the community, there is no access to sanitation, clean drinking water or heat. The Oakland County Department of Human Services recently remarked that the water shut-offs may constitute child endangerment and the lack of water recently led to 79 individuals being caught stealing water in a three-day period.
Motivations and gentrification
While it cannot be argued with any certainty that the cutoffs were politically motivated, it does lead to interesting questions. For example, who would benefit from a sudden lack of demand in low-income housing? Could this lead to arguments for the privatization of the water department and — perhaps more important — what to make of the arguments that many targeted by these cutoffs have made that it was the leaky water network, and not them personally, that have led to the high bills? Why didn’t the city target major commercial and industrial users for non-payment until the media forced the issue?
The situation in Detroit reflects issues that cities across the nation are facing — particularly, in the Northeast and the Midwest. As their populations shrink, these cities are forced to come up with valid solutions on how to make do with less. While few cities have faced the gross economic mishandling and population drop as strongly as Detroit, many — including Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh — are facing the reality of revitalizing their communities and reversing the economic slide that endangers their financial stability.
With a city such as Detroit, talk of gentrification is likely to raise emotions. Indications that a poor Detroit and a rich Detroit are emerging — as reflected by Whole Foods recently opening a new store in the city — show that the issue of turning off the water to the city’s most desperate reflects an unwritten characterization of Detroit’s experiences with austerity.
The questions lie in the balance of fairness versus continued vitality. Is urban renewal or urban accountability worth it if it inconveniences the people in the city?
“You are aware your shutoff [sic] program has created a lot of anger and hardship, not to mention scores of bad publicity the city doesn’t need?” Steven Rhodes, Detroit’s bankruptcy judge, told the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on Tuesday.
“It’s hurting the city and this bankruptcy. Is there more the department can do to make the payment plans accessible?”