Detroit Residents Challenge Policy for Water Shutoffs

DETROIT (CN) — Detroit residents backed by the ACLU filed a federal class action Thursday accusing city and state officials of not having a plan in place for low-income residents who face water shutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and water department supervisor Gary Brown are named as defendants in the 101-page lawsuit, and are alleged to have shown “deliberate indifference to the known risks of living without water service that could, did, and will cause harm to plaintiffs.”

The Detroit skyline.

The lawsuit – filed on behalf of six Detroit residents and a coalition of grassroots groups and community-based organizations called the People’s Water Board Commission – says city officials have not bothered to check that poorer residents were unable to pay their bills before they shut off their water, in violation of their equal protection rights.

Since the shutoffs target residents of a predominately Black city, they violate fair housing laws as well, according to the complaint.

With the pandemic continuing to spread throughout the country, the plaintiffs argue the lack of water access could worsen the spread of infection because those facing shutoffs cannot consistently wash their hands.

“Since the Covid-19 crisis began, defendants and other government officials have admonished members of the public to engage in regular handwashing to prevent infection and the spread of disease. Yet, through its water shutoff policy, Detroit has made handwashing a practical impossibility for thousands of families in the city for nearly 20 years,” the lawsuit states.

A ban on water shutoffs ordered by Governor Whitmer was acknowledged in a statement posted by the ACLU of Michigan, but the group said it will eventually end.

“For 15 years our civil rights coalition has been fighting at every level of government to permanently put an end to water shutoffs, a policy that harms the health and wellbeing of impoverished Black Detroiters,” said Mark Fancher, an attorney for the ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Project.

“While the governor’s temporary moratorium on water shutoffs during the pandemic is a step forward, the moratorium will expire and Detroiters will once again be left without solutions and with huge bills they cannot possibly afford, forcing residents back into the cycle of water shutoffs,” he added. “It is time to throw shutoffs on the dust heap of deeply disturbing practices that contribute to the structural racism our nation is finally attempting to dismantle.” 

The lawsuit calls for Detroit to adopt a water affordability plan like those in Philadelphia and Baltimore, where payments can be spread out over one year for residents who qualify. 

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Hurley Medical Center pediatrician, said the water shutoffs risk general human health.

“Water is a medical and public health necessity. Depriving people of water is anti-prevention, anti-science and anti-common sense,” she said in the ACLU press release. “If the Flint water crisis taught us anything, it’s the need to focus on prevention and not wait until we can prove harm.” 

In a joint statement, the governor and mayor disputed the accusations of inaction.

“Since day one, Governor Whitmer has been committed to ensuring clean water for all Michiganders. In March, she signed an executive order requiring the reconnection of service to residences that have had water service shut off, and announced a $2-million Water Restart Grant Program will help communities comply with the order,” they said. “Yesterday, Governor Whitmer signed an executive order protecting every Michigander from water shutoffs through the end of this year, and last week, she secured the largest investment in water and energy assistance in the history of Michigan, which includes $25 million to provide bill forgiveness for past due utility bills and fees incurred by residential water customers during the COVID-19 state of emergency.”

While Whitmer and Mayor Duggan said they do not comment on litigation, the statement said the governor is committed to developing “long-term policy solutions to make water affordable for every family in Michigan.”

The statement also pointed out that all the plaintiffs currently have running water services.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with the ACLU of Michigan, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Michigan Poverty Law Program and several firms.

A request for comment from the Detroit chapter of the NAACP was not immediately returned Thursday. The group had previously sued the state over the Flint water crisis and called for a moratorium on water disconnection in Detroit.

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