In 2014 the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) commenced the largest residential water shutoff in U.S. history and terminated water service to over 20,000 Detroit residents for lack of payment, without regard to residents’ health needs or ability to pay. DWSD’s internal documents revealed that due to its sloppy billing practices, it had not charged many customers for sewer service for several years. DWSD demanded a lump sum payment from customers for those charges which many of the city’s impoverished residents could not afford to pay. Other documents also revealed that residents with delinquent accounts were billed for charges incurred by previous tenants. The ACLU of Michigan joined a lawsuit that sought to restore water service to the city’s residents and stop future shutoffs, but in 2016 the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower courts’ dismissal of the case. Advocacy resumed in 2018 in response to media reports of plans to shut off the water of 17,000 households. In 2019 the ACLU and a coalition of attorneys unsuccessfully petitioned the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and then Governor Whitmer, to declare a public health emergency and impose a moratorium on shutoffs to prevent the spread of disease. Then, an investigation by our partners at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) revealed dramatic racial disparities in water shutoffs, as they are far more likely to occur in majority-Black neighborhoods than in neighborhoods where Blacks are less than 50% of the population. In July 2020 the coalition filed a new lawsuit against the Governor and the City of Detroit alleging that the water shutoffs violate due process, equal protection, the Fair Housing Act, and state law. In August 2020 the defendants filed motions to dismiss, which remain pending. Meanwhile, the city’s self-imposed moratorium on water shutoffs is set to expire at the end of 2022. The city has also developed an income-based affordability plan—an idea we have long encouraged—but which is fatally flawed by the city’s frank admission that the program contemplates continuing to impose water shutoffs for what will likely be significant numbers of households. (Lyda v. City of Detroit; Taylor v. City of Detroit; ACLU Attorneys Mark P. Fancher, Bonsitu Kitaba-Gaviglio, and Dan Korobkin; additional attorneys include Alice Jennings of Edwards & Jennings, Coty Montag, Monique Lin-Luse, and Jason Bailey of LDF, Lorray Brown, Melissa El-Johnson, and Kurt Thornbladh.)


Defending liberty