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Civil rights groups sue Detroit over water shutoffs

hands under pouring water
mrjn Photography

The ACLU and other civil rights groups are suing the city of Detroitand others over Detroit’s water shutoffs.

Detroit has shut off water service to around 100,000 homes since 2014 for non-payment. Close to 25,000 homes were disconnected in 2019.

The lawsuit asserts that this is a major problem, a practice that “exposes thousands of Black Detroit residents to disease and racial discrimination that renders affected households defenseless against infection, especially during a pandemic.”

Those two things—health and racial disparities—are the twin injusticies at the heart of the suit’s legal claims, said Mark Fancher, an attorney with the ACLU.

The right to basic health and sanitation that water shutoffs deprives people of is so basic it “cannot be taken away…unless the government has a compelling objective in doing so,” Fancher said. “And we say they do not.”

“What they have done in the process of doing that is to create conditions which exist in households and in communities, which are conducive to the spread of disease.”

The lawsuit seeks to permanently end the water shutoff policy and asks for a court order immediately preventing shutoffs from resuming. It also calls for Detroit to adopt an income-based water affordability plan, similar to those put in place in cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore. 

Coty Montag, an attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which is also part of the lawsuit, said the group’s own analysis shows how overwhelmingly Black Detroiters are impacted by water shutoffs.

“Water shutoffs disproportionately impact Black residents of Detroit,” Montag said. “If state and local officials are serious about ending structural racism, as they claim to be, they can start by ending Detroit’s water shut-off policy today, and implementing a permanent water affordability plan so that low-income residents can afford their water bills.”

But the parties named as defendants in the lawsuit—which include Mayor Mike Duggan, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer—were largely dismissive of it.

“It is hard to understand how this lawsuit has any relevance today,” DWSD said in a statement. “Since the Mayor and the Governor announced [Detroit’s] $25 [water service] restoration program four months ago on March 9, water shutoffs have come to halt.

“The program has been so successful, those suing today could not find a single plaintiff in Detroit living without water service and, in fact, the plaintiffs benefited from current programs. Since 2014, the City of Detroit and its partners have distributed $20.3 million to Detroiters for water assistance programs and another $2.7 million dollars are currently available.”

Gov. Whitmer has put astatewide moratorium on water shutoffs through the end of this year, decreeing that water service is a vital need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs in this lawsuit say that proves their point—that once the pandemic ends, some people who have been reconnected through various restoration programs will once again face large back bills and shutoffs, and the danger that comes along with that remains imminent. They say the only viable long-term solution is a true water affordability plan for low-income households.

“COVID was just a reckoning for us,” said Alice Jennings, a civil rights lawyer involved in the lawsuit. “It was not unexpected, but it pulled back the covers on what was really going on with poverty in our city, with not having water in our city.”

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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