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Whitmer will not use executive powers to end Detroit water shutoffs

water faucet
Flickr user Bart

Governor Gretchen Whitmer will not use her executive powers to end water shutoffs in Detroit.

Civil rights groups, including the ACLU, petitioned Whitmer in November, asking for her to declare the shutoffs a public health emergency and to put a moratorium on such shutoffs. 

In a response dated February 21, Mark Totten, chief legal counsel for Whitmer’s executive office, stated, “As to your request for the governor to issue a moratorium on water shutoffs, she does not have that power because there is insufficient data to support the use of emergency powers in this instance.”

Between 2014 and 2018, over a hundred thousand homes in Detroit had their water service stopped because residents could not pay their bills

Mark Fancher is the staff attorney for racial justice at the ACLU of Michigan.

He says the ACLU and other civil rights groups addressed the possibility of disease and bacteria spreading as a result of the shutoffs as a secondary concern. Their primary concern, he says, is that water is a basic survival necessity.

“For anyone to suggest that you need studies and science in order to determine that there's a health problem when thousands of households don't have water is disingenuous. If you don’t have water, you will become sick and you will die," Fancher said. "And there are thousands of households in the city of Detroit that do not have water because of these shutoffs. That means that these families are unable to hydrate themselves, they’re unable to bathe, they’re unable to cook. And that is fatal, for many people, or it potentially could be, and that is a crisis in and of itself.”

In his letter, Totten said that many families who had their water shut off were eligible for assistance, like the Water Residential Assistance Program or the State Emergency Relief program. Fancher says that’s a band-aid solution that will do little to help in the long term.

“Both of those programs are designed for individuals or families who are facing a short-term financial crisis: they have fallen behind in their payments in one way or another because they lack money temporarily, and if they receive one-time assistance they will be able to get back on track and resume a normal payment schedule,” Totten said.

He adds, “That does not represent the circumstances of most of the families that have been victims of the water shutoff. These are families that are so poor that they could never afford market-rate water from the beginning, and if you provide them with one-time assistance, they will not be able to pay the next month’s water bills, and they’ll be back in the same situation again.”

Fancher says that the ACLU and others have to question whether the lack of action may be because of who it affects, despite many residents affected by the shutoff wanting to be responsible citizens.

“We’re talking about many people who are very poor, we’re talking about many people who are people of color, and we are talking about people who have been the victims of cruel stereotyping and lies about who they are," Fancher said. "There have been many who have brushed aside this problem, claiming that these are people who are making bad choices, that they’re using their money to buy expensive electronic gadgets rather than pay their water bill. There have even been suggestions that people could go to the river to get water if they want it.”

He says he and his colleagues are not optimistic that the governor or the state will take action at any point in the future.

“We, instead, are looking at other alternatives we have, not excluding litigation against everyone who has been in some way responsible for a very callous reaction to the problem that faces Detroit.”

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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