Civil rights leaders and groups are opposing Detroit’s resumption of water shutoffs this week. Instead, they are asking a judge to immediately block the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) from terminating water service to any occupied residence, and to require the restoration of service to occupied residences without water.
Meanwhile, DWSD said the number of shutoffs scheduled this week has been decreased by more than 50 percent because of payments and payment plans that were made in recent days.
The ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense Fund are serving as expert consultants in the litigation.
“Without a continued moratorium on water shutoffs, thousands more Detroiters, mostly low-income children, seniors and disabled, will immediately be at risk for shutoff,” said Alice Jennings of Edwards & Jennings, P.C., counsel in the lawsuit. “A comprehensive water affordability plan, a viable bill dispute process, specific polices for landlord-tenant bills and a sustainable mechanism for evaluating the number of families in shutoff status or at risk for shutoff, is necessary prior to lifting the DWSD water shutoff moratorium.”
The motion for a temporary restraining order filed over the weekend as part of a class action lawsuit, Lyda et.al v. City of Detroit, on behalf of Detroit residents affected by the mass shut-off campaign of DWSD, as well as organizations active in the fight for the restoration of and affordable access to water including Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board, National Action Network-Michigan Chapter and Moratorium Now!
The lawsuit is in bankruptcy court before Judge Stephen Rhodes as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.
According to the lawsuit, DWSD began water shutoffs without adequate notice and against the most vulnerable residents, while commercial entities with delinquent accounts were left alone.
The suit also argues that this violates the plaintiffs’ due process and equal protection rights.
“More than 17,000 homes have had their water cut off and water bills in Detroit are among the highest in the country and unaffordable for many Detroit residents,” Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director, said.
“The rush to resume shutoffs when there are serious questions about the affordability plan, accuracy of bills and issues with the water department’s ability to process disputes, means that the City of Detroit should get its house in order before turning off anyone else’s water.”
In March, DWSD began dispatching private contractors to begin shutting off water service to residents who are more than 60 days delinquent or owe more than $150.
Despite the fact that 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the shutoffs began without a plan to help those who cannot pay.
After public outcry and the lawsuit, the city implemented a moratorium and announced a 10-point plan to address the dysfunctions raised by the lawsuit and civil rights groups.
“The mayor’s plan only consists of proposals and temporary fixes,” said Rev. Charles Williams of the National Action Network-Michigan Chapter. “Until actual policies are in place to ensure that residents have access to affordable water, the water shutoffs cannot be resumed.
The current proposal for residents to enter into non-negotiable payment plans is only a short-term solution, according to the groups fighting the shut-offs.
For instance, last month, the ACLU of Michigan and NAACP LDF wrote a letter to city officials arguing that that the poorly implemented and uneven DWSD shut-off policy violates the civil and human rights, as well as the due process rights, of residents because it often fails to provide them with adequate notice and a hearing that takes into account whether they actually have the ability to pay.
“DWSD must immediately restore water to all its customers,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
“In addition, they should create a reasonable timetable for a hearing and appeals process, pending resolution of these issues.”
Attorneys for residents are calling on Judge Rhodes to order DWSD to extend the moratorium to ensure that the most vulnerable Detroiters are not left without water. The moratorium on shutoffs, they say, should be extended until DWSD has policies in place to ensure that collections are done in a way that doesn’t violate residents’ constitutional rights.