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Washington — Half of the Congressional Black Caucus this week signed a letter by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, critical of Detroit and Baltimore for shutting off water service for delinquent customers.

The letter was addressed to activists in Lagos, Nigeria, where the city is moving toward privatizing water services, and a "mere fraction" of the 20 million residents have regular access to clean water, Conyers wrote.

Twenty-two members of the caucus, including Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, joined the letter, which described water shut-offs in Detroit as "inhumane."

"We are deeply concerned that low-income communities and people of color are disproportionately affected when water is managed with greater attention to profit margins, than to human rights," the lawmakers said.

"We wish to express our solidarity with the people of Lagos, of Detroit, and cities around the world as they raise their voices in support of public water, participatory governance and universal access."

The lawmakers worried that water privatization or public-private partnerships in Lagos, as urged by the World Bank, would leave the community vulnerable to the "negative impacts," including rate hikes, service interruptions and infrastructure neglect.

Detroit received national criticism over widespread water shut-offs at homes that began in March 2014, spurring protests.

Residents facing water shut-offs have filed suit against the city. Their attorney says only half the 33,000 residential accounts shut off last year were able to get service restored by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

City officials have noted service isn't interrupted for delinquent customers who opt into a payment plan. There are about 32,000 customers in payment plans — more than double what it was a year ago, according to the office of Mayor Mike Duggan.

The city in May estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 accounts faced shut-offs this year due to delinquency. Notices are generally issued to accounts at least 60 days overdue or owing $150 or more.

A new, $6 million Water Rate Assistance Program is expected to kick off when the new Great Lakes Water Authority goes into effect July 1. That program will replace Detroit's existing water fund.

A private donation of $1 million to an independent fund will also aid low-income Detroiters who need aid to pay their water bills.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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