What Happens When Detroit Shuts Off the Water of 100,000 People

Some run dry—and others pay $30 for plumbers to illegally turn the taps back on. 
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Eric Thayer/Reuters

When the water trucks arrived near Arlyssa Heard’s home on the west side of Detroit at the end of June, the 42-year-old single mother of two said it felt like the entire neighborhood was being taken over. “There were water trucks literally circling up and down blocks. I’d never seen so many in my life,” she says. “It’s like they were the police hunting down a criminal.”

It may not have been a police crackdown, but what she witnessed was definitely a crackdown of a sort. Since last year, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been turning off water at the homes of customers behind on their bills. The shut-off campaign comes at a time of crisis and hastened recovery for Detroit, which became the largest American city to ever file for bankruptcy last summer. The value of the bonds associated with the water department’s debt comes to $5.7 billion, which constitutes almost one-third of the amount estimated to have pushed Detroit into bankruptcy.

The campaign to crack down on overdue bills—which is aimed at customers who are more than two months behind on their bills or who owe more than $150—has been described by activists and scholars alike as an effort, pushed by the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, to get rid of the bad debt associated with the water department and prep the public entity for privatization.

In a city where the median household income is less than half the national average, 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line and 23 percent are unemployed, it comes as no surprise that at least 40 percent of customers are delinquent on their bills.

The water shut-offs have taken no prisoners. Since this year's shut-offs started at the end of March, at least 15,000 Detroit households have had their water turned off. But the campaign, a tactic designed to pressure Detroiters into paying their water bills, began with little or no publicity last year, when 24,000 homes had their water shut off, says Darryl Latimer, the deputy director of the water department. 

The frequency of shut-offs gained momentum in the fall, shortly after the city’s bankruptcy was filed, and just a few months after the city contracted shut-off services out to Homrich, a demolition company. The city agreed to pay Homrich at most $6 million for work over 730 calendar days. Delinquent customers were given a grace period in December for the winter months, with shut-offs resuming upon the arrival of spring.

With the city’s average of just under three people per household, these numbers mean that roughly 100,000 Detroiters out of a total population that hovers just under 700,000 have already been affected by the shut-offs, with tens of thousands more awaiting their turn.

Clampdowns can seem to arrive out of the blue, as residents don’t receive any formal notification that their services are to be shut off. Heard’s bills, up until the last one, which was for $263.87, only contained a small “past due” notice at the end, informing her that she was behind on her payments and her service was “subject to disconnection.”

Latimer says 60 percent of the department’s customers show up to pay their bills within 24 hours of being shut off, and most of the rest pay up a couple of days after that. Latimer appears to take this as proof that customers can afford to pay, but are just being irresponsible citizens, taking advantage of the system as much as they can.

Latimer says revenue at the department is up. The department has seen an increase of 45 percent to 50 percent in collectables associated with individuals’ accounts compared to previous years, Latimer says. “The campaign has been extremely effective.”

But the stories of residents left without water suggest a scenario that’s less clear-cut. Heard, who lost her job as a program manager in a welfare-to-work program five years ago and has been picking up odd community-based jobs since, was among those choosing to pay her bill immediately after her water was shut off—although she did have to wait five days before the water was eventually turned back on.

However, many of her neighbors who could not afford to settle their debts instead chose to pay a local handyman $30 to have their water turned back on illegally. Detroiters in neighborhoods across the city who cannot face their accumulated water debts—even with the department’s offer to only collect 30 percent initially—are opting for the same solution.

“They do what they’ve got to do. What choice do they have?” says Roslyn Walker, a resident of northwest Detroit whose water was shut off in mid-June. Most of her neighbors have decided to risk it and go the illegal route, she says.

Walker, a 48-year-old single mother of two, lost her job as an in-home caregiver in 2010 and has since been cleaning and cooking in acquaintances’ houses a couple of times a week to try and make ends meet. She had to borrow money from her mother to pay off her initial $300 water bill.

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Rose Hackman is a journalist based in Detroit.

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