In Detroit, thousands of people have had their water turned off in the last few months after not paying their bills. For the water department, it's a way to get delinquent customers to settle their tabs. For residents and activists, it's a serious issue when the city's poorest, including children, are made to live without running water in their home. A group of United Nations experts called it a violation of human rights.
In a new video report, Vice News delves into the Detroit water crisis, looking at how the shutoffs are connected to deeper, systemic problems in the city.
"What [the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is] going to say is that the people aren't paying their bills, they shouldn't have any water. And the story's a little bit more complicated than that," Dr. Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Detroit's Wayne State University, told Vice News. "You've got to situate water in the context of Detroit. It goes back again to the sort of underlying dynamics of huge water infrastructure, declining population, increased poverty ... it's not just water."
Detroit has lost more than a million residents since 1950, but the city limits and water infrastructure haven't similarly shrunk. That's part of why Detroiters pay some of the highest water rates in the country -- despite a poverty rate more than double the national average.
And the water department doesn't have the resources to keep up. When scrappers scavenge copper from Detroit's abandoned homes, sometimes water connections break, leaving water running and basements flooded, literally leaking money. When scrappers got to Lisa Stevenson's house, her pipes burst, she told Vice News, leaving water running for three months. The $19,000 water bill gets tacked on to her property taxes, making the home unaffordable. The proposed payment plan would have had her paying almost $40,000 over the course of a year.
Ater recent outcry over the water department's handling of customers who are behind on their bills, Mayor Mike Duggan instituted a moratorium on water shutoffs through late August. He also announced a plan to make bill payment easier and provide better financial assistance. Corporate sponsors pledged $200,000 to the new financial assistance fund.
Vice News spoke to Sonia Brown, who had her water shut off in the past and is letting her home be used as a water distribution hub for people in need in her community.
"Have we truly become a society to where we'll go and build wells and stuff in third world countries but we'll say to hell with our own right here up under our nose, our next door neighbors, the children that our children play with?" Brown said.
Watch the Vice News report above.