What we can’t afford By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

What we can’t afford

April 12, 2015

shea25In an editorial “Detroit “can’t afford ‘free’ services” the News reached a new low. The editorial argues people should pay for their homes and water. Apparently the editors think paying bills is a foreign concept to people in the city.

The News says Detroiter’s could pay their property tax or their water bills if they wanted to, but won’t because of our “culture.” Instead of evidence to support this outrageous claim, the editorial invokes racial stereotypes.

The editors imply people need a push to pay up. Apparently, they think losing your home or having your water shut off is inconsequential. Cheer leading from the Mayor will get people to come up with the cash they are spending on frivolous things, they imply.

The editors say, “You can’t blame officials for wanting residents to pay up. Homes, like water, aren’t free. Yet that’s what many property owners came to expect in pre-bankruptcy Detroit.”

This framing of a deep structural crisis is nonsense. It is the same argument the Mayor circulated in his plan for massive water shut offs scheduled to start soon.  It is a talking point intended to manage legitimate outrage.

Most Detroiters pay their bills. In a city with mass unemployment and widespread poverty this is often a struggle. People balance one necessity against another. Heat this month, medicine the next; buying shoes too big, hoping the kids won’t outgrow them before they wear out.

The reality of the last 40 years has been the growing inequality between the haves and have-nots.  For complex structural and psychological reasons, inequality has dominated development in our region. Racism has justified evading it.

Once a city of middle class jobs and homes, plants moved out, automation moved in and the American Dream turned into a nightmare. In the last two decades, the unrelenting assault on the public sector has especially hit African Americans. Teachers, postal workers, police, and government employees of all sorts were laid off, let go, cut back and now, find themselves with reduced pensions after a lifetime of work. This, combined with the orchestrated foreclosures that ripped through our city shifting the wealth from small homeowners to big banks has meant that nearly half the city cannot afford basic necessities.

This structural problem raises profound questions. What are our obligations to one another? How do we construct lives that ensure everyone has dignity, security, protection, and the opportunity to be productive?

The sheer magnitude of the problems should be an opportunity for new thinking about the ways we have lived and the ways we need to live if we are to have a future.

People reimagining life at the neighborhood level are creating the sustainable “culture” of Detroit every day. They are creating values of care and concern that express how deeply connected we are to one another and the earth.

It is time to stop pretending. We can come up with inventive ways to rebuild our city. We need a real Water Affordability Plan and we need to stop these foreclosures. No one benefits from an empty home. All of us pay the costs of evictions. We all are impoverished if we cannot find ways to ensure the dignity of everyone. But as the Mayor likes to say, we have to face reality first. We cannot afford evasions designed to protect those with power and privilege.