By Alice Jennings
On June 3, 2015 about 60 Detroiter Water Advocates gathered in Lansing to testify at public hearings called by representatives Stephanie Chang, Shelton Neeley and LaTanya Garret. This hearing begins the work of State and National policies to protect Water as a Human Right.
Here are excerpts from Alice Jennings whose testimony opened the session. You can watch the unedited hearing at https://vimeo.com/129853822
Testimony of Alice Jennings
Thank you Representatives Stephanie Chang, Shelton Neeley and LaTanya Garrett for bringing us here today to testify about one of the most fundamental issues of our time, in our great state, affordable, safe and accessible water.
As you know, Michigan is surrounded by five great lakes, or twenty (20%) percent of the fresh water in the world. Yet, Detroit, Michigan, and other urban cities are experiencing a humanitarian and public health crises. Since January 1, 2013 over fifty-three (53,000) thousand Detroiters, residential customers of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), had water and sewerage abruptly terminated to their homes. We know from FOIA requests and Director reports authored by Director of the DWSD, Susan McCormick, that of the thirty-three (33,000) thousand shutoffs occurring in 2014, only approximately eighteen (18,000) thousand homes were restored to service by the end of the year.
This year alone, another several thousand residential homes have experienced the trauma of water service termination. Another thirty thousand homes are scheduled for shutoff in the next season of shutoffs, affecting tens of thousands of Detroiters. In her most recent May 2015 report Director McCormick states how the 2015 shutoffs are now well on their way:
“From January 2015 to April 11, 2015, 13,303 accounts were checked for possible illegal usage, and 5,794 of those accounts were found on illegally and were re-shut.
Since May 11, 2015, the Department posted 2,882 door hangers notifying customers of pending shut off of services; a total of 794 of those customers have either paid bills, or entered into a payment plan agreement. Currently, there are a total of 30,766 active payment plan agreements with a total combined balance of $25,106,446.53.”
I cannot advise you of the exact numbers of Detroit children, disabled, elderly or others at risk Detroiters living in houses without water, though we know almost 15,000 homes were not restored to service by December 31, 2014. It is unconscionable that no analytical tool, study or review has been created by state or local government prior to the shutoffs, or at any time to capture the data on the social demographic of the inhabitants in the shutoff homes. We know that after 2007 no comprehensive collection effort was made by DWSD through a shutoffs policy; instead DWSD relied on placing the water bill on the Wayne County tax roll of the property. Wayne County would pay the DWSD bill until a sale through foreclosure allowed Wayne County to receive its payment back. This resulted in many citizens, at the time of water shutoffs, having residential bills in the thousands of dollars.
What we know, from the groundwork of community organizing performed by non-profit social justice organizations in Detroit: Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Peoples Water Board Coalition, We the People of Detroit, National Action Network, Moratorium Now, and thousands of dedicated volunteers, is that human pain and suffering has occurred and continues to occur in Detroit. DWSD service increases and “payment plans”, which are not based on affordability, are not sustainable and the track record in 2014 and 2015 is failure. If the “assistance programs” were successful, another thirty thousand homes would not be at risk for shutoffs. Not having water service immediately makes a home uninhabitable under Detroit ordinances. Children under State law can be immediately taken from their parents or family and placed under protective services. Fear, humiliation and embarrassment are not uncommon where water has been shut off for non-payment. Public and private sanitation risks are magnified where no water sanitation is available in the home.
Reliance on the water bill going to Wayne County’s Tax Collection Department, gave many Detroiters a way to buy food, medicine, pay rent or other expenses, while paying only part of their DWSD bill. In the case of landlords, money was collected in rent; but the water bill was not paid. DWSD’s bills grew to thousands of dollars, particularly for low income Detroiters living below the federal poverty level.
The water shutoffs of 2014 were very harsh indeed. In mid-2013 a contractor, Homrich Wrecking, was hired to perform the shutoffs at a cost of five million six hundred thousand ($5,600,000.00) dollars. In April 2014, the DWSD shutoff policy required shutoff if the bill was 2 months late or over $150.00. A majority of Detroiters were at risk for water shutoff.
Recently, in May of 2015, in the face of the Detroit City Council voting to place a moratorium on water shutoffs, until a plan of action could be devised to address families with affordability issues prior to the shutoffs occurring, the DWSD’s Board of Water Commissioners voted to extend the Homrich contract by another $1,000,000.00 or to 6.4 million dollars.
- State of Michigan Legislation addressing water affordability, accessibility and safety. The legislation should create a database reporting mechanism for the location and number of homes shutoff from water and sanitation with human inhabitants with protection for children, elders and the disabled. Affordability would be based on income; each residential customer’s or family’s ability to pay.
- Federal Legislation establishing a policy on water and sewerage affordability, based on each residential customer’s ability to pay, requiring each state in the U.S. to have statutes on affordability, accessibility and safety.
- A federal dedicated source of funding to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and a renewal of the Build America Bonds Program to address aging water and sewerage infrastructure, which is but one of the reasons for rising costs, passed on to residential customers.
- In Detroit, Michigan, implement by ordinance the original Detroit Water Affordability Plan (2005) created by expert Roger Colton.
- In Detroit, Michigan, an immediate assessment of the number of Detroiters living in homes without water, including a survey of the number of children, disabled, elderly and other at-risk citizens, with a review of public health and safety issues. Restore all water service and then determine eligibility for assistance programs, in one stop, including federal and state assistance. Only if it is determined that the person has the ability to pay, but has not, will the water and sewerage services be terminated.
- In Detroit and Highland Park create a comprehensive DWSD Policy and Procedure for shutoff of residential and commercial accounts.
- Stop all water and sewerage shutoffs until DWSD has implemented policies and procedures addressing shutoffs by implementing the Colton, Detroit Water Affordability Plan.
- Declare an Amnesty on Detroit criminal prosecutions for “alleged water thief”; decriminalize the use of water as a “necessity”; instead evaluate Detroiters charged with water thief for financial assistance and affordability based on what Detroiters can afford to pay. Turn an alleged criminal into a contributor.
- Stop the stigmatization of families by spray painting the front of their homes with blue or yellow paint, when their water and sewerage is cutoff or threatened with shutoff.
WATER IS A HUMAN RIGHT!