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A group of civil rights organizations want the City of Detroit to not disconnect Detroiters from water after a moratorium on residential water shutoffs ends this year, and they took their request to federal court.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

The coalition — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU), Legal Defense Fund and Michigan Poverty Law Program — filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan Monday on behalf of plaintiffs who are part of an ongoing 2020 lawsuit that says water shutoffs have, for years, harmed residents and calls for a long-term solution to the problem.

They want the court to enter a preliminary injunction that would prohibit the City of Detroit from stopping water service for debt collection and as a response for nonpayment of water bills, according to the court filing. They say that although the city created a water affordability program earlier this year, some residents have not been able to enroll and don’t know if they qualify.

“Clean running water should flow in all Detroit households beyond 2022 as well as become affordable for everyone. Our lawsuit shows that water shutoffs are devastating to poor families, with a particular impact on Black families, in violation of civil rights laws,” Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project, said in a Tuesday statement.

A moratorium on water shutoffs for residential customers in Detroit ends Dec. 31 and Detroiters who are having trouble paying their bills must enroll in one of the city’s water assistance programs to avoid getting disconnected next year.In March 2020, Michigan required utilities to restore water services and not conduct shutoffs for nonpayment, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city extended the moratorium later that year vowing to find a long-term solution to stop shutoffs for low-income Detroiters. Over the summer, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department launched the Lifeline Plan based on income and usage to help people reduce their bills. That program, which began in August, is currently funded for 18 months.

Detroiters attended a Lifeline Plan enrollment fair at the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church on Sept. 13, 2022. (Nushrat Rahman, Detroit Free Press)

In a statement Tuesday, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said that the moratorium will continue for households who apply for the Lifeline Plan or enroll in the 10/30/50 program, where people can make a down payment and pay off their delinquent balance in installments.

“As of Dec. 12, that means at least 16,000 households will be in the moratorium after December 31. … We will respond to the motion by the civil rights groups. Meanwhile, we continue our unprecedented outreach, including neighborhood canvassing, to invite more eligible households to apply for the Lifeline Plan,” the statement said.

Those who are income eligible can apply for the Lifeline Plan by calling the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency — the organization administering the program — at 313-386-9727 or go to waymetro.org/DWSDlifeline. For more information about the 10/30/50 plan, go to bit.ly/waterassistanceprograms or call DWSD at 313-267-8000.

Plaintiffs question the accessibility of the Lifeline Plan and, in the court filing, raise concerns about “the high probability, if not certainty, that large numbers of Detroit residents will, for various reasons, fail to enroll in the program and thereby render themselves susceptible to shutoffs.”

Among the people who may be unable to access the program include those who don’t know about it, don’t have access to technology, large families who exceed the water usage limit of the plan and those who have insecure immigration status, according to the filing.

One plaintiff, Tuana Henry, said she is concerned about her family using more than the 4,500 gallons of water a month the program requires to remain at the fixed rates. She had applied for the Lifeline Plan, but as of early December, has not received a response about her enrollment, she said in the court filing.

She said she was enrolled in the 10/30/50 program before March 2020 but could not afford the plan. She has dealt with water shutoffs on and off.

Another plaintiff, Jacqueline Taylor, said she has been trying to apply to the plan for months but has not been successful. She does not use a computer, and when she called to make an appointment, she could not get through to get an answer. She’s dealt with water shutoffs for nonpayment prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as she struggled to pay her water bills and other monthly expenses.

“The loss of water services on and off over the years has caused disruption and mental anguish,” she said in the court filing.

The Lifeline Plan, she said, is a step forward, especially because it wipes away arrears, but she’s concerned that it is not permanent since funding is temporary.

The water department currently has enough money to run the program for 18 months and is searching for permanent funding. Director Gary Brown previously told the Free Press that DWSD is working with state, federal, congressional leaders and philanthropic foundations to identify permanent funding.

There are 60,000 residential accounts — out of 220,000 total residential customers — that are in delinquent status, the water department said, and the average balance they owe is $700.

The water department has held in-person enrollment fairs, attended community meetings to talk about the program, included notices in some water bills about the moratorium ending and options for assistance programs and canvassed households that were likely low income, according to DWSD.

DWSD said last week that 20,000 Detroit households are eligible for the Lifeline Plan. As of Nov. 25, more than 12,000 people have applied. More than 7,900 households have been enrolled and Wayne Metro was processing roughly 4,300 applications. There are more than 2,400 residential customers in the city’s 10/30/50 payment plan.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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1 Comment

  1. The court should grant this motion for preliminary injunction. The law protects the status quo pending outcome of the final hearing and decision. Given the force of the existing moratorium, backed by the State through executive orders and law, the status quo is the protection of residents from shutoff, especially during health crises like the current triple-pandemic of flu, SRV, and COVID. Moreover, the merits of this case weighs heavily in favor of a violation of the civil rights of Detroit residents. Detroit has systematically pretended to provide protection for residents in need, but the truth his the process is far too onerous, unfair, after-the-fact, degrading, and violates the right to water. This water is public, it comes from Lake Huron or the Detroit River, the state holds this water in public trust for citizens as legal beneficiaries, for navigation, fishing, drinking water, bathing, sustenance, and other essentials. Just because the water enters the Detroit Water Board’s pipes and is treated doesn’t mean it loses the public trust character, nor does it relieve DWB of its obligation to assure and protect the right to drinking water and water for bathing and cooking under pubic trust law. The shutoffs impair and destroy these rights, and endanger the health of residents. The DWB system is unfair, inequitable, and onerous on those who cannot afford to pay their bills, without assuring continued right to receive water enough for drinking, bathing, and cooking. It also puts the burden on citizens, that leads ultimately to shutoffs because they can’t even meet the onerous plan of the DWB. This is unconscionable, and violates government’s obligations under the civil rights laws and, in any event, under public trust law. It’s time for the courts to oversee a remedy that complies with these legal principles and the right to water. Further, it is time for the Michigan state legislature to step in and revamp the state’s archaic funding mechanisms that also places a heavy burden on municipalities, urban and rural, that are disadvantaged, and victims themselves of a legislature that has dragged its feet since the 40,000 shutoffs in 2014, and tens of thousands of people in this state since then.

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