Detroit Citizens Marching in Water Services Crisis

Click here to read the temporary restraining order asking a judge to stop water shutoffs.
Click here to read the letter to DWSD expressing concerns about the manner of the shutoffs.
Click here to see the FOIA documents

9/11/2014

ACLU of Michigan and NAACP LDF Release Video on Detroit Water Crisis

DETROIT, MI – Today, civil rights attorneys seeking to prevent further water shut-offs to thousands of Detroit residents released documents showing the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) recently added to residents’ financial burdens by demanding payment for six years’ worth of retroactive sewage fees.

The DWSD claimed these fees had apparently gone unbilled due to a “systems change.”

The documents shared today include a letter to DWSD from a consulting group outlining its “bill collection strategy” proposal.  Apparently referring to the sewage charges, the letter notes: “Bills sent with the cumulative charges likely contributed to recent customer service and collection volumes. Outstanding balances approximate $115 million. Over 80% of this is more than 60 days past due.”

In one example of the impact of this broken billing practice, a Detroit church received a bill in February 2014 for nearly $60,000 in sewage and water fees dating back to 1992, although it had been paying its bills regularly for several years. 

“Those looking to blame Detroit residents for their lack of ability to pay their bills should instead be blaming Detroit officials for the mismanagement that contributed to this crisis,” said Monique Lin-Luse, an attorney with NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Hitting residents with six years’ worth of retroactive, cumulative sewage bills at a time when they are struggling to pay existing water bills is adding insult to injury.”

To illustrate the problems Detroit residents have faced in attempting to pay their bills, the ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense Fund today released a six-minute video featuring interviews with residents and activists fighting DWSD’s shut-off campaign.

“My water bill was almost $900 when I’m bringing home $300-$400 a month,” says Detroit resident Rosalyn Walker. “When I asked them why, they said because the person who lived here before you had a high bill. I think that is so wrong.”

“Revelations like this make the rush to resume water service shut-offs still more unconscionable,” says Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “Instead of addressing the needs of Detroit residents with an affordability plan, accurate bills, and an improved dispute process, the Department set thousands up to fail by sending them bills impossible to pay.”

The documents released today were filed with the court as part of the class action lawsuit, Lyda et.al v. City of Detroit. Brought on behalf of Detroit residents and community organizations affected by the mass shut-offs, the lawsuit argues that the DWSD began water shut-offs without adequate notice and against the most vulnerable residents, while commercial entities with delinquent accounts were left alone. The ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense Fund are serving as expert consultants in the case.

This suit is currently in bankruptcy court before Judge Stephen Rhodes as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.  A hearing to challenge the shut-offs is scheduled for Wednesday, September 17th.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced this week that the City of Detroit and several surrounding counties have agreed to establish a new regional water authority.  That agreement does not detail a plan to provide adequate assistance and due process protections for Detroit’s low-income residents. The unaffordability and due process violations will persists until such a comprehensive plan is in place.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and ACLU of Michigan continue to call for an end to the mass shutoffs campaign until a comprehensive plan is in place to address the affordability and due process issues plaguing DWSD customers.


 

8/29/14

At 8:30am on Tuesday, September 2nd, at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (231 West Lafayette Blvd), civil rights lawyers will argue that a moratorium that had prevented water shutoffs to thousands of Detroit residents and families should be continued until procedures are in place to protect residents from arbitrary shutoffs. The moratorium that had been in place and prevented water shutoffs to over 17,000 residences ended this past Monday. 

In one egregious example, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) threatened to shut-off water to an elderly, bedridden woman for whom water was necessary to ensure that her feeding tube performed its function. When the resident’s daughter called to inform DWSD that she would be unable to pay the bill before the shut-off date, she was not told that she could apply for an emergency medical postponement, nor was she given the opportunity to enter into a payment plan she could afford.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs in the litigation, led by Detroit attorney Alice Jennings, filed court documents this week asking a judge to immediately block the DWSD from terminating water service to any occupied residence and to order the restoration of service to occupied residences without water.  The ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense Fund are serving as expert consultants in the case, and previously submitted a letter to DWSD expressing concerns about the manner of the shutoffs.

 According to court documents, water shutoffs should not take place without procedures in place that meet the requirements of the Constitution. Such procedures include proper notice that a shutoff will occur, an opportunity to present information about why the shutoff should not take place, and an opportunity to appeal any adverse determinations.

 The argument on Tuesday is part of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of attorneys on behalf of residents and civil rights organizations of Detroit, which asserts that the water shutoffs violate residents’ due process and equal protection rights and create a public health hazard. Judge Stephen Rhodes of the U.S Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District of Michigan will preside over the hearing on the moratorium as part of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. 

 

In Argument to Detroit Bankruptcy Court, Civil Rights Attorneys Urge Judge to Restore Detroit Water Services Until Litigation is Resolved

8/25/14

DETROIT – In an effort to preserve a moratorium on water shut-offs, a group of Detroit residents and civil rights attorneys filed court documents over the weekend asking a judge to immediately block the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) from terminating water service to any occupied residence, and to require the restoration of service to occupied residences without water.

The moratorium is currently scheduled to end today. The ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense Fund are serving as expert consultants in the ongoing litigation

“Detroit water department officials must immediately restore water to all its customers,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “In addition, they should create a reasonable timetable for a hearing and appeals process, pending resolution of these issues.”

The motion for a temporary restraining order filed yesterday is part of a class action lawsuit, Lyda et.al v. City of Detroit, on behalf of Detroit residents affected by the mass shut-off campaign of DWSD, as well as organizations active in the fight for the restoration of and affordable access to water including Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board, National Action Network-Michigan Chapter and Moratorium Now!. This suit is currently in bankruptcy court before Judge Stephen Rhodes as part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.

The lawsuit argues that the DWSD began water shutoffs without adequate notice and against the most vulnerable residents, while commercial entities with delinquent accounts were left alone. The suit also argues that this violates the plaintiffs’ due process and equal protection rights.

“More than 17,000 homes have had their water cut off and water bills in Detroit are among the highest in the country and unaffordable to many Detroit residents,” says Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “The rush to resume shut offs when there are serious questions about the affordability plan, accuracy of bills, and issues with the water department’s ability to process disputes, means that the City of Detroit should get its house in order before turning off anyone else’s water.”

In March, DWSD began dispatching private contractors to begin shutting off water service to residents who are more than 60 days delinquent, or owe more than $150. Despite the fact that 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the shut-offs began without a plan to help those who cannot pay.

After public outcry and this lawsuit, the city implemented a moratorium and announced a 10-point plan to address the dysfunctions raised by the lawsuit and civil rights groups.

“The mayor’s plan only consists of proposals and temporary fixes,” said Rev. Charles Williams of the National Action Network-Michigan Chapter. “Until actual policies are in place to ensure that residents have access to affordable water, the water shut-offs cannot be resumed. The current proposal for residents to enter into non-negotiable payment plans is only a short-term solution.”

Last month, the ACLU of Michigan and NAACP LDF wrote a letter to city officials arguing that that the poorly implemented and uneven DWSD shut-off policy violates the civil and human rights, as well as the due process rights of residents because it often fails to provide them with adequate notice and a hearing that takes into account whether they actually have the ability to pay.

“Without a continued moratorium on water shutoffs, thousands more Detroiters, mostly low income children, seniors, and disabled, will immediately be at risk for shutoff,” says Alice Jennings of Edwards & Jennings, P.C., counsel in the lawsuit. “A comprehensive water affordability plan, a viable bill dispute process, specific polices for landlord-tenant bills and a sustainable mechanism for evaluating the number of families in shutoff status or at risk for shutoff, is necessary prior to lifting the DWSD water shutoff moratorium.”

Attorneys for residents are calling on Judge Rhodes to order DWSD to extend the moratorium to ensure that the most vulnerable Detroiters are not left without water. The moratorium on shut offs should be extended until DWSD has policies in place to ensure that collections are done in a way that doesn’t violate residents constitutional rights.

Tawana Petty, an activist with the People’s Water Board Coalition, echoed these sentiments. “We are asking the Governor, Mayor, Emergency Manager and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to stop their assault on the citizens of Detroit and restore all water to residents. Water is life and without it, we perish.”