Groups call on Whitmer to end Detroit water shutoffs

Valerie Blakely at her home Woodland Street home | Ken Coleman

A coalition of civil rights lawyers and organizations has called on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to order a moratorium on the interruption of water service to thousands of Detroit households. 

The group wants Whitmer to step in because of what it called “years of city and state officials’ inaction, apathy or disregard.” It consists of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU); Edwards & Jennings; Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice; Detroit Justice Center; attorney Jerome Goldberg; Marine-Adams Law, P.C.; and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Zeeland | Nick Manes

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has disconnected water to more than 112,000 households between 2014 and October 2018, the coalition said. 

“Water is a human right,” said Dave Noble, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “Elected officials have failed Detroit residents, and they have fought against ending water shutoffs at every opportunity for years. They refuse to enact a water affordability plan indexed to income that would save lives as well as save the city money. We need the governor to override the disregard for lower-income city residents.”

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown on Tuesday said it is “reviewing” the coalition’s request. The group argues that it has attempted without success to urge city officials to abandon the use of shutoffs.

Legal activists urge state to suspend Detroit water shutoffs

Gary Brown, DWSD director, on Thursday said that Mayor Mike Duggan “feels very strongly the city has a responsibility to make sure all Detroiters are able to access water service.”

But Mark Fancher, ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project attorney, said that not enough has been done.

Mark Fancher | ACLU of Michigan photo

“For years, the DWSD and official powers that be have toyed with the lives of Detroit residents and their families by cruelly shutting off their access to water for sometimes very little owed on their water bill,” Fancher said.

Valerie Blakely was a shut off victim in 2014 after a set of sub-zero temperatures led to increased heating costs. Her $900 heating bill forced her family of six to make critical decisions about which bills to pay first. The Detroit family faced a $1,200 water bill and ultimately a utility shut off.

“We just could not get caught up or the electricity gets cut off,” Blakely told the Advance last year. “Everything suffered from people getting shoes to getting underwear. We couldn’t get our head above water.”

After years of gridlock with city officials to make water accessible and affordable, the coalition filed a petition with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) last July. The petition urged the state agency to require DWSD to suspend water shutoffs by declaring a public health emergency caused by terminating water service to thousands of city residents.

Last September, DHHS Director Robert Gordon denied the request, stating the DHHS has “not identified data that suggest a causal association between water shutoffs and water-borne disease.”

Two months later, in an attempt to have Gordon’s decision reversed, the coalition asked to meet with Whitmer. The group requested that she issue an executive order to restore water service for affected Detroit residents and to impose a moratorium on any future water shutoffs.

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“Detroit officials have used water shutoffs as an inhumane tactic against residents for years, and my stance has not changed — clean, affordable water, regardless of income, is a human right which I advocated for while in city government,” said Anthony Adams, a former DWSD interim director and current partner of Marine-Adams Law P.C.

Brown pointed out that Duggan had previously instituted a moratorium on water service interruptions until he could raise $2 million for a water assistance program and develop a payment plan option for consumers. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

“Today, more than 3,100 households are currently enrolled in the program and maintaining their water service, and there is more than $1.3 million in assistance available for new enrollees this year, which replenishes every July, so every Detroiter has a path to keep their water flowing,” Brown added.

Under state law, Brown said, utilities like DWSD must charge for the service it provides and that “those charges cannot be based on individual incomes.”

“It is time for city and state officials to recognize the data that shows a water affordability plan makes sense for Detroit and it makes sense for its people,” said Alice Jennings, a coalition partner with Edwards & Jennings P.C. “Research shows if the DWSD sent affordable water bills, people would pay their bills and the city would avoid the expenses of collection, while lower income residents would have access to clean water.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.