Outraged Canadians Report the Detroit Water Authority to the UN for Human-Rights Violations

Is there a plan to force the gentrification of Detroit through overdue water bills? And should the United Nations take action? The Council of Canadians thinks so.

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Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Is it a human-rights violation to cut off water for residents who are delinquent on utility payments when an entire city is struggling to get caught up? That's the claim in a report submitted to the United Nations this week by Canadians concerned about water access in Detroit. 

The Blue Planet Project, a division of the liberal non-profit Council of Canadians, filed a claim with the UN this week detailing a range of human-rights violations—all of them stemming from water shut-offs issued by Detroit's water authority.

The claim, which was addressed to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, alleges that shut-offs issued by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department are dislodging poor residents from their homes and denying them the fundamental human right to clean water.

"It is a truly shocking situation," says Maude Barlow, the founder of the Blue Planet Project and chair of the Council of Canadians, via email. Barlow, who wrote the report after visiting Detroit, calls on the city to restore service to all households whose water has been cut off and to "abandon its plan for further cut-offs." 

Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. (Sanitation and Water for All/Flickr)

The Blue Planet Project cites a May 28 statement from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department director Sue McCormick to the city's board of water commissioner. That letter notes that the department issued 44,273 shut-off notices in April, "resulting in 3,025 shut-offs for non-payment, and additional collections of $400,000 as compared to this time last year." 

The Canadian report claims that residents fear they are being targeted by the city. She attributes to the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization a description of the "crackdown" as "a ploy to drive poor people of color out of the city to facilitate gentrification." 

One part of that is true: There is a crackdown. 

"People who are paying [their water bills] are picking up the costs for people who aren’t paying," says Bill Johnson, public affairs officer at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. For the first year in its history, the agency is embarking on a "sustained shut-off effort" to bring some of its 90,000 active delinquent accounts up to date. (This figure doesn't include accounts owed on vacant or abandoned properties.) "The water bill isn’t the first bill people pay, it’s the last bill they pay—after the credit card, after the cell phone, after the cable," he says.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

So the department began issuing thousands of shut-off notices in April. (The water is never shut off when there's a possibility that temperatures could dip below 32 degrees, so DWSD doesn't take action from roughly October through March.) Of the 44,000 notices issued, Johnson says, about 10 percent resulted in cut-offs. Of these, 60 percent of the customers paid their bills and saw their accounts restored within 24 hours.

"We prefer not to cut your water off," he says. "We tell people to come into our office, sit down with our representatives. We see if we can work out a payment plan for you. Meanwhile, if you fall below a certain poverty line, we refer you to certain partner programs for help." 

Detroit residents may be feeling the pinch this year for two reasons: The shut-off crackdown is coming on the heels of a rate hike that has hit Detroit residents hard. While customers living within the broader DWSD service range saw their rates go up 4 percent as of last July, Detroit city residents got hit with an 8.7-percent hike—a raise justified in part by the $118 million in outstanding bills

"We provide some of the cleanest drinking water anywhere in the world," Johnson says. "Somebody's got to pay for it."

The Sanitation and Water for All Sector Ministers' Meeting, April 2014. (Sanitation and Water for All/Flickr)

The report by Barlow—who declined to respond to followup emails or calls for clarification on her goals—makes a more serious claim about forced gentrification. The Council of Canadians' allegations sounds a lot like a conspiracy theory that people in Washington, D.C., know as "the Plan."   

"People’s overdue water bills are being transferred to their property taxes, and people are losing their homes as a result," the report reads, attributing the claim to a group called the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. When I called that organization, a volunteer who answered confirmed that this was happening, although she could not name any specific individuals who had suffered this fate. 

This mechanism is real, according to Johnson at DWSD, but it deserves a closer look. Twice annually, the department issues notices to "chronically delinquent" addresses to inform them that overdue amounts may be added as a tax lien. The department sends these notices out twice a year; in March, it issued about 79,000 notices.

However, most of these notices wind up at addresses that are vacant, stripped, or in foreclosure. Johnson emphasizes that these notices are issued to "addresses," since the account-holder and the home-owner aren't always the same person. Detroit has to sort all of these issues out before it considers applying a lien. He says he knows of no home-owners who have lost their homes due to a water bill. And trying to collect on a bill doesn't constitute a human-rights violation, Johnson says.

You wouldn't know it by the striking language coming out of Canada. "The Detroit People’s Water Board fears that authorities see people’s unpaid water bills as a 'bad debt' and want to sweeten the pot for a private investor by imposing even more of the costs of the system on those least able to bear them," the seven-page complaint reads.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on water rights, could not be reached for comment. But she's taken action in the States before: In 2012, she sent a scathing letter to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson calling on the city to provide greater access to sanitation and clean water to Sacramento's homeless population, citing violations she witnessed on a trip during 2011.

It was during that trip that she prepared a 92-page report on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation in the U.S.—a document that found "near-universal" access to safe water but testified that "the poorest and most marginalized groups" often lacked access to sanitation. The UN General Assembly resolved in 2010 that sanitation and accessible, affordable, clean drinking water represent a human right. 

Affordable—but not free. 

"It appears these complaining groups have a proclivity for fabricating issues and making outrageous claims," Johnson says, "but little talent in coming up with a cogent, strategic plan for how we can provide the best drinking water in the world for free."

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.