The city of Detroit is in financial crisis. City departments are in debt. Household incomes continue to fall. To cover its debts, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in 2014 began shutting off water service to more than 19,000 homes behind on bills.

A year after it began terminating water service, the City of Detroit is rushing to resume the shutoffs, even though there are serious questions about the city's affordability plan, the accuracy of bills and issues with the water department's ability to process disputes. Fearful of the health risks the next round of shutoffs pose, the ACLU of Michigan has asked a federal court to expedite its appeal of a decision that permitted the city to execute its plan.

Despite public outcry, the city of Detroit’s hastily put together plan has fallen short. Residents continue to lose access to water or be placed in “affordability plans” that they cannot afford. 

That's why residents, advocates, and civil rights groups are working to correct this broken system and provide real solutions for affordable water. 

► Read the latest news on the water crisis on Democracy Watch

About the Case
Videos and Multimedia
Legal Documents

About the Case

In an effort to preserve a moratorium on water shut-offs, a group of Detroit residents and civil rights attorneys filed court documents 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.

“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.”

The motion for a temporary restraining order filed yesterday is part of a class action lawsuit, Lyda 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 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.

“DWSD 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."

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.”

Videos and Multimedia

Video: When the Water Runs Dry: Voice from the Detroit Water Crisis

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The ACLU of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense Fund is proud to release When The Water Runs Dry, illustrating the problems Detroit residents have faced in attempting to pay their bills through interviews with residents and activists fighting the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s shut-off campaign.

Infographic: After the Outcry: Is Detroit's Water Back On? 
Water Infographic
Learn about the Detroit water crisis by the numbers. Click for a printable high-res version.

Legal Documents

► View documents that show the Water Department's sloppy billing practices

► Read the motion for a temporary restraining order

► Read the lawsuit filed by civil rights groups

► Read the letter to Detroit officials urging an immediate moratorium on water shut-offs

► Read about the history of water rights over at Michigan Democracy Watch