Detroit water shutoff policy challenged; DWSD questions timing

A federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan claims the water shutoff policy in Detroit has left some residents suffering for years and seeks a permanent solution to the issue. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department director questions why the suit is being filed at this time.
Six residents and the People’s Water Board Coalition filed a lawsuit Thursday stating that water is necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic and that residents have been suffering from the lack of access to water for years, especially the city’s Black residents.
The residents and board also allege that equal protections have been violated after water services were disconnected without inquiring if the resident had the ability to pay the water bill.
In addition, the lawsuit states Detroit is violating the Fair Housing Act and the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act with its water shutoff policy, alleging that “it has a disproportionate and unjustified impact on Black residents.”
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by the American Civil Liberties Union Michigan, is calling for the defendants – the City of Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and DWSD director Gary Brown – to come to a permanent solution when it comes to water shutoffs in Detroit.
But Brown doesn’t understand why this lawsuit is relevant today. In a news conference held Friday, he said water shutoffs came to a halt on March 9, when Duggan and Whitmer announced a $25 restoration program as coronavirus concerns began to grow.


“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,” said Brown.
But with the program in place just a few months ago, the lawsuit alleges that the defendants have been “exhibiting deliberate indifference to the known risks of living without water service that could, did and will cause harm to plaintiffs.” That violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Michigan Constitution of 1963, according to the suit.


“The governor has extended the moratorium until December 31, 2020,” Brown said. “So that buys us some time to be able to work on a permanent funding solution to this issue. The $25 million will probably get us through a couple years, but we need a permanent solution.”
When it comes to heat and energy resources, Brown said water resources need similar legislation to support Detroit’s low-income residents.


With that assistance, Brown is confident that funding will be available by Jan. 1 to be able to sustain the water shutoff programs. The DWSD will need about $10 million a year. He emphasized that funding is needed to reach the permanent solution, that funding will most likely not come from local funds. DWSD is asking the plaintiffs to become partners with them to lobby in an effort to receive funding.


In the meantime, the DWSD hopes that the plaintiffs will provide addresses of those without water, so that they can assist them.
“It is DWSD’s belief that water has been restored to every occupied house in Detroit that has responded to DWSD’s four-month outreach,” said Brown. “If there is any household still without water, please call our partners at Wayne Metro at 313-386-9727.”
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