Public Health Is at Stake When You Cut Off People Who Can’t Pay for Water

by: Alice Jennings, an attorney at Edwards & Jennings, P.C. representing Detroit citizens who have had their water shut off.


The United States needs a national water affordability law. Such legislation would require each state to have its own statute protecting access to water for low-income people and those below poverty level. To understand why such protection is necessary nationwide, consider the humanitarian and public health crisis in Detroit.

According to our best estimates, over 53,000 thousand Detroiters, residential customers of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), have had their water and sewerage abruptly terminated since January 1, 2013, with the biggest wave coming in the spring of 2014. Of the 33,000 shut-offs that occurred last year, only approximately 18,000 thousand homes were restored to service by the end of the year.

Paying no attention to how much people can afford only produces pain and suffering, not a solution to anybody’s problem.

The city has responded with “payment plans” and other measures to address the problem. None have worked. Detroit began shutting off the water of another 25,000 people this week.

These shut-offs have caused enormous misery. I know because I am representing 10 families pro bono in a civil and human rights lawsuit that was filed on July 21, 2014. And the people taking part in the Lyda et al v City of Detroit lawsuit are just a drop in the proverbial bucket of Detroit’s water issues.

One mother of three, Nicole Hill, had her water cut off twice without notice. After the second cut-off, she developed a severe viral infection and had to be hospitalized for over a week. She had been receiving wildly inconsistent water bills, ranging from $27 to $900 monthly; she also received water bills during the time when her water was shut off.

Denise Donaldson said in a declaration that she lost her water service while her mother was bedridden and required tube feeding, even though rules are supposed to require medical waiver.

Maurikia Lyda, the lead plaintiff in the case, had her water was shut off after her landlord didn’t pay the bill. She sent her four children to live with relatives because lack of water makes a home uninhabitable under Detroit ordinances. She feared that protective services would take children away because state law gives agencies the right to remove children living in uninhabitable homes.

Other testimony has come from a senior citizen on fixed income who had had her purse stolen. She was trying to get on one of the Water and Sewerage Department’s “payment plans” that allow residents to pay their bill in installments to get their water turned back on. But she couldn’t—even though she had the money to pay—because she couldn’t produce a current I.D.

Among the common themes in the testimony: Water was shutoff without notice. High bills were often the product of irresponsible behavior by landlords. And leaky, aging water infrastructure contributed to the high bills.

I don’t know exactly how many of Detroit’s children, elderly, disabled people, or others who are at risk are living in houses without water. No state or local government has made a comprehensive count and assessment of everyone who has been affected.

What we know is that the shut-offs—and the “payment plans”—haven’t resolved the problem. The department may need money to operate its system and recover from a staggering load of debt, but paying no attention to how much people can afford only produces pain and suffering, not a solution to anybody’s problem. Public and private sanitation risks are magnified where no water is available in the home.

Reposted with permission from Zocalo and Alice Jennings