Bankole: Chicago schools Detroit on water access

Bankole Thompson
Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot speaks during her inauguration ceremony Monday, May 20, 2019, in Chicago.

Chicago’s new Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared recently at Malcolm X College: “Water is a basic human right. And when you cut somebody off from water, you’re effectively evicting them and putting them on the street. We will not do that in the city. That is a heartless act.”

Lightfoot’s declaration is in line with the United Nations which has affirmed access to water as a human right. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in 2002, noted, “The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”

WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and American Public Media reported that since 2007, the city has sent out 150,000 water shutoff notices, and that 40% of the enforcements have been in five of the city’s poorest ZIP codes, mostly in black and Latino neighborhoods.

During a budget presentation last Wednesday before the Chicago City Council, Lightfoot didn’t back down from her promise of making water inaccessibility a thing of the past.

“This budget includes the new Utility Billing Relief program, which is an unprecedented, equity-focused effort that will reduce the water utility rates for homeowners with incomes 150% below the federal poverty level,” Lightfoot said.

“This will also dramatically cut the size of water bills for every other Chicagoan by creating monthly — rather than twice-a-year-bills — and end water billing after an account has been shutoff. We estimate about 20,000 households are eligible to participate in this targeted relief. For them, this program will cut water utility taxes, end the threat of water shutoffs, stop any referral to collection agencies.”

By contrast Detroit under Mayor Mike Duggan has touted a decrease in water service interruptions, even as the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department reported that 16,000 accounts in 2018 alone were abolished for nonpayment.

Duggan has been hesitant to declare water as a human right. During one of his mandatory community meetings at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which has a large black congregation, Duggan told angry residents who stormed the meeting pleading for help that he wished water was free.

“The ultimate goal in Detroit and Chicago is really the same, which is to keep water service on for any resident struggling to pay,” John Roach, the spokesman for the mayor, told me in an email. “They have one approach in Chicago, and in Detroit our approach is to establish a culture where customers who have the ability to pay know they are expected to pay, while any customers who are struggling to pay have access to assistance programs to keep their water on. All that is required is for customers to reach out to DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department] and ask for help.”

When I asked Roach if Duggan views water as a human right, he offered this: “The mayor believes that every customer who has the ability to pay should pay so that cost isn’t passed on to other DWSD customers. Before the mayor implemented the first payment assistance programs in 2014, the average DWSD customer was paying an additional $150 each year to cover the cost of other customers who were not paying, even those who had the ability to pay but didn't.”

The argument made in defense of shutting off water on poor people in Detroit is that hundreds of thousands of households and businesses maintain a water system that was originally built for two million people.

But what the Duggan administration seems to lack is innovation and moral force to ensure that poor and disadvantaged families and children are not living in homes without water.

What is also noteworthy is that in the past the city has been more aggressive towards families than businesses in its enforcement action for nonpayment of water bills.

For a city that emerged from bankruptcy fiscally healthy as the mayor reminded us during the five-year anniversary of the bankruptcy, it should have no issue ensuring that hard-pressed residents have access to water.

Duggan should be talking to Lightfoot.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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