Activists on Thursday released a study claiming Detroit’s two-year water shutoff campaign has helped dismantle predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Last year alone, the city of Detroit shut water service to 23,300 homes, a number the group We the People of Detroit says underscores a growing divide between suffering neighborhoods and a rebounding downtown.
“There is a renaissance downtown full of newcomers, while they are shutting off water for those who stayed and paid” bills for years, said Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO of the group.
The group released the findings of its 18-month study into shutoffs and foreclosures, “Mapping the Water Crisis,” during a press event at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
The study is the culmination of research from academics at Wayne State and the universities of Michigan, Detroit Mercy and California at Berkeley. It will be forwarded to experts at the United Nations, who have expressed concern about the shutoffs and be used in lobby efforts to make water more affordable in the city, Lewis-Patrick said.
Detroit’s water bills average about $75 per month. That can be a tall order in a city where some 40 percent of its residents live in poverty. EPA guidelines call for water bills to comprise no more than 2.5 percent of family income, but they’re closer to 10 percent in many Detroit homes, the report found.
City officials have long insisted the goal of the shutoffs was to put residents on payment plans. About 125,000 of the city’s 175,000 residential customers are current on their bill, and 44,000 are on repayment plans, said Gary Brown, director of the water department.
He said the vast majority of homes that are shut off are turned back on in 24 hours after customers enroll in repayment plans.
“We don’t want to shut off anyone, but we are obligated to collect for a service we provide,” Brown told The News after the group’s press event.
“The alternative is bankruptcy. We’ve been there and we are never going back,” said Brown, alluding to the city’s municipal bankruptcy in 2013.
Several payment plans are available, including a new one — the Water Residential Assistance Program or WRAP — that launched in March and covers one-third of the cost of average bills and freezes delinquencies for low-income households.
Activists contend those programs don’t go nearly far enough. The WRAP program, for instance, signed up about 1,300 Metro Detroit households, but has a waiting list of 3,000 customers. Nearly three-quarters of Detroit customers who signed up for the plan are now behind in payments, The Detroit News reported in July.
The shutoffs follow a wave of 110,000 foreclosures in the past 10 years. The combined effect is seismic, said Gloria House, a retired humanities professor from Wayne State University.
“The incidents of shutoffs, foreclosures and school closures are not random, but intentional and specific... We believe it’s about the dismantling of neighborhoods,” said House, who added she would not speculate why neighborhoods would be targeted for dismantling.
Charlie Beckham, Detroit’s group executive for neighborhoods, said city efforts have dramatically reduced tax foreclosures. Nearly three quarters of the 54,000 homes that were served notice of foreclosure have been withdrawn as of July 31, he said.
The researchers, meanwhile, using their own research and data published this year in The News, found the shutoffs are spread throughout the city and heaviest in the northeast and northwest sections of Detroit. Those are also areas that traditionally had the highest concentration of homes and experienced some of the heaviest abandonment in the past 16 years as the city’s population plummeted from 1 million to about 700,000.
Brown said he considers the water department an “anchor institution” that can aid in economic development.
“I want to grow my customer base, not shrink it,” Brown said. “Anyone who says differently is nonsense.”