With a history of civil liberties stretching back almost a century, the ACLU has got plenty of amazing cases for #TBT. Every Thursday, we'll be sharing updates on cases pulled from our archives of work in Michigan and beyond.

Today, members of Congress finally heard testimony on the water crisis in Detroit and Flint. The briefing could not be more timely. Secret negotiations are currently underway, some regarding the creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority and others to determine how much higher water and sewer rates will climb this year. 

This #ThrowbackThursday, let's take a look back at how Detroit has struggled with water affordability. 

Detroit's Water Woes: A Payment Plan is not an Affordability Plan

Will Mayor Mike Duggan’s 10-point plan to help Detroit residents pay their water bills work?

The answer for that is yes. And no.

There is no doubt it will indeed work for many, at least for now. The “Water Fair” held at Cobo Center on Saturday attracted more than 1,300 people who waited hours for help. 

And, according to the city, 1,140 of them seeking assistance were able to enroll in a payment plan intended to help them avoid shut-offs.

But it is equally certain that there will be others for whom the plan, although it is an improvement on previous policies, will be of little help.

This isn’t just conjecture. 

On Thursday, with shut-offs again under way now that a month-long moratorium has ended, I followed one of the crew from Homrich Demolition – the private contractor hired to conduct residential shut-offs, at a cost of $5.6 million over two years – as he began his day’s work. 

Rolling through a community on the city’s west side, he cut service to five homes – all of which were occupied – in about a half an hour. According to news reports, about 400 homes a day have had their water shut off since the moratorium ended Monday.

The problem isn’t going away.

At Saturday’s Cobo event, some of the people I talked with said they thought the payment plan they were being put on would be manageable. Others said that Duggan’s much-touted approach provided only a temporary reprieve.

If they couldn’t afford to pay their water bill before, a number of these people said, what made officials think they could pay their current bills plus a portion of their past bills, as the plan requires, going forward? 

Still, they scrambled to come up with the 10 percent down just to keep the water flowing for the time being. Perhaps they are simply forestalling the inevitable, but water would at least keep flowing for the time being.

There are also well-documented instances of the department failing to inform people of the options available to them, such as their right to stop the shut-off process if they thought their bills were inaccurate and wanted to dispute them.

All of this and more is why a group of residents and civil rights attorneys filed documents with U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven Rhodes seeking a temporary restraining order that would again put a halt to the shut-offs.

“Without a continued moratorium on water shutoffs, thousands more Detroiters, mostly low income children, seniors, and disabled, will immediately be at risk of shutoff,” said Alice Jennings, an attorney working on the lawsuit. “A comprehensive water affordability plan, a viable dispute process, specific policies for landlord-tenant bills and a sustainable mechanism for evaluating the number of families in shutoff status or at risk of shutoff, is necessary prior to lifting the DWSD [Department of Water and Sewerage] water shutoff moratorium.”

There is a difference between a “payment plan” and an “affordability plan.” 

The former extends the time period over which payments can be made. But a true affordability plan reduces the costs for poor people, basing rates on their ability to pay.

It is the official position of the DWSD that such an affordability plan isn’t allowed under state law. That claim is vigorously disputed by activists and a number of experts. 

However, for argument’s sake, let’s say that the department is right, and that the current law doesn’t allow the sort of affordability plan activists say is absolutely vital if poor people are going to be able to continue having access to something they can’t live without.

If that is determined to indeed be the case, then an all-out effort needs to be made to change the law.

Either way, until that question is definitively answered, the need for continuing the moratorium – and for restoring service to people who have had their water shut off already – is absolutely clear.

As is noted in the request for the temporary restraining order (which my employer, the ACLU of Michigan, along with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund participated in as an expert consultant):

“The moratorium has had a positive effect. It has allowed space for thousands of Detroiters to enter into payment plans that have allowed for at least the temporary restoration of water service, including to a number of the named Plaintiffs in this case. 

However, without a lasting solution to decrease the cost of water to Detroiters, the implementation of a water affordability plan and a process for waiving unverifiable arrearages and fees that customers have carried for years due to DWSD’s previously lackadaisical collection polices, many of these same Detroit residents will once again face shut-offs and the crisis will quickly reassert itself.”

The stories of people named in documents filed with the court make a compelling case. They are the stories of people such as Denise Donaldson, who cares for her bedridden mother.

According to the suit, Donaldson received notice that her family’s water would be shut off on Aug. 27 if she didn’t make some sort of payment arrangement. She contacted the water department and told them that she could come up with the 10 percent down payment by the 29th, and that her mother required water because of her illness.

Even so, Donaldson claims that she was not told that the medical situation qualified her for a postponement. Neither was she told about outside sources of help, including the United Way, which last week received a $2 million donation slated to help some people facing shut-offs. The message was that she needed to pay up immediately or lose her access to water. Period.

Desperate for help, she turned to the activists at the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), which contacted higher-ups at the water department on her behalf, and the scheduled cut-off was cancelled.

But there is a limit to the number of people a small nonprofit like MWRO can help. The same is true for others who have volunteered to step into the breach and help address the crisis on a case-by-case basis.

If the Homrich crews maintain their reported pace, that’s a rate of 8,000 homes a month that will be having their water shut off.

That’s one hell of a plan.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Michigan Citizen newspaper and on the Michigan Democracy Watch Project blog.

By Curt Guyette, Investigative Reporter