On October 19, 2014, thousands of runners took over the city of Detroit (and part of Canada) for the 2014 Detroit Free Press Marathon & Half Marathon. As one of the runners, I was thankful for the gracious residents and community organizations that relentlessly filled countless cups of fresh drinking water to exacerbated athletes throughout the entire course. This is just business as usual for any marathon event in any city. However, Detroit isn’t just any city. For the greater part of this year the City of Detroit has been shutting off water services for residents unable to pay.
On the same day of the race, Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, visited the City of Detroit and held a public meeting regarding the widespread water shut-offs. According to the UN News Centre, over 27,000 households now lack access to water services in their homes. De Albuquerque was also joined by Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing.
Following a direct illustration of the water issue and residents’ concerns, the investigators outlined several suggested recommendations. Here’s the summary of the points:
- The City of Detroit should restore water connections to residents unable to pay and vulnerable groups of people, stop further disconnections of water when residents are unable to pay, and provide them the opportunity to seek assistance that must be made available through social assistance schemes.
- Local government should adopt a mandatory affordability threshold and specific policies to ensure specific support to people who live in poverty.
- The City of Detroit should prioritize vulnerable groups of people by providing urgent measures, including financial assistance, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation (minimum amount of water necessary for personal and domestic uses, which should be about 100 liters per person per day) and to housing when people are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to cover the costs themselves.
- Authorities should make an urgent assessment of the public health consequences for the individual, schools and community of the water shut-offs, and take steps to mitigate adverse impacts.
- Governments should make every effort to ensure that the most vulnerable, including those who reside in Section.8 housing, are not evicted from or lose their housing as a result of water shut-offs or water bill arrears.
- The City of Detroit should stop converting delinquent water bills to property liens for collection and enforcement through the tax foreclosure process. We further recommend that the Government advertise and make accessible property tax exemption programs for those living in low-income.
- In the event that an individual or family is rendered homeless due to water shut-offs, the city of Detroit must have in place emergency services to ensure alternate accommodation with running water is available.
- The Federal Government should immediately undertake an investigation into the water shut-offs to determine if they are having a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other groups protected against discrimination.
- Federal and state agencies with relevant authority should require water and sanitation utilities, as a condition for funding and permits, to collect data and report annually on water shut-offs by age, income level, disability, race, and chronic illness.
- Residents of Detroit should be ensured access to administrative and legal remedies. These procedures must be made public and accessible, and adequately resourced.
It is important to recall that the UN did not come on their own. It took a coalition of activists and community organizations to bring international attention to this issue. Here is the full report submitted to the UN in June 2014 by The Detroit People’s Water Board, Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “Outraged by the violation of the human right to water and sanitation in the City of Detroit”, the report listed their recommendations as a call to action:
- We call on the State of Michigan and the U.S. government to respect the human right to water and sanitation.
- We call on the city to restore services to households that have been cut off immediately.
- We call on the city to abandon its plan for further cut-offs.
- We call on the federal and state governments to work with the city to ensure a sustainable public financing plan and rate structure that would prevent a transfer of the utility’s finan- cial burden onto residents who are currently paying exorbitant rates for their water ser- vices.
- We call for fair water rates for the residents of Detroit.
- We call on the City of Detroit to implement the original water affordability program immediately.
View the full UN press statement here.