Detroit water payments should be income based

Gloria House and Shea Howell
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According to the newly created Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), nearly 36,000 households in Detroit are facing water shut-offs as soon as the weather clears.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is targeting commercial accounts first with an outstanding debt of about $20 million.

In the same breath, however, they list another “first:” They will permanently shut off 8,355 households that have turned their own water back on. Calling these “illegal hookups,” the water department is trying to criminalize desperation.

The fact that people have been driven to this extreme step, along with 26,000 other households behind on bills, is clear evidence of the inadequacy of Mayor Mike Duggan’s assistance programs.

Clearly, Detroiters are still struggling despite the celebratory tone that greeted the end of official bankruptcy proceedings. The sheer numbers of people slated for shut off should have been a wake up call to city leaders last year. It’s long past time for the water affordability plan (WAP) to be implemented. The WAP adjusts payments based on the reality of people’s income. It would keep the water and the revenue flowing.

The rationale for resistance to the WAP shows up in the minutes of the GLWA meeting and it isn’t pretty.

The goal of the aggressive shutoffs is “changing the culture regarding the responsibility to pay for service.”

But the only way a sentence like that can make sense is if you believe there is a current culture where people are irresponsible and not willing to pay for their services.

This is the same belief that Detroiters are not paying water bills or property taxes because, as former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said, we are “dumb, lazy, happy and rich.” Bill Nowling, then Orr’s spokesman, tried to get him out of that comment by saying he believed the comments were “about the attitude of the body politic of the city of Detroit, not Detroiters themselves.”

Such nonsensical distinctions are offered to cover the deep-seated racism that characterizes the attitude of many people toward Detroiters.

This attitude pathologizes the people of Detroit. It casts us as deficient, ignores our history, denies our humanity, and disrespects and diminishes our lives. It functions to blind the public to both the pain and the strengths of the city.

Most Detroiters know that we not only work hard, but we often do the hardest work. With the disappearance of jobs and capital, we have been struggling to create new ways of living and working together.

We have a long history of “making a way out of no way.”

We pay our bills.

In fact, we have willingly voted ourselves the highest taxes in the state in order to provide for our schools, parks, community colleges, museums, zoo and art programs.

Now with jobs gone, pay cuts, pension cuts, increasing medical bills, increasing heating bills, the highest water rates in the state, predatory lending, overinflated property taxes and auto insurance more than double that of the suburbs, people are scrambling to keep home and hearth together.

That is why a water affordability plan, based on percentage of income, is the only sane response to the impending shut-offs of an additional 28,000 homes.

Gloria House and Shea Howell are members of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management.


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