Saturday, June 28, 2014

Motor City Madness: A Mound of Sound Guest Post

The City of Detroit is the poster child for municipal meltdown. It’s generally known that Detroit is bankrupt after decades of steady decline and the flight of most of its wealthy (white) citizens. There is no shortage of graphic photographs of abandoned and derelict buildings, the remnants of once viable neighbourhoods.

Not everyone could afford to flee Detroit. Poverty was their invitation to stay put. However staying put in a city in collapse ain’t cheap. With businesses gone and wealthy residents gone someone still has to pay for basic infrastructure and that someone would be the poor who can’t afford to leave.

Enter Maude Barlow the head of the Council of Canadians and world renowned expert on water issues. Ms. Barlow wears many hats. In her capacity as founder of the Blue Planet Project and chair of Food and Water Watch, she has written a wrenching report to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water on the plight of Detroit’s left behind residents.

Barlow complains that Detroit’s austerity proconsul, appointed by the state governor, is breaching the human rights of Detroit residents by denying them access to clean, safe water. At the moment, water utility crews are being kept busy, very busy, cutting off water service to 3,000 homes each week. The city needs $5-billion in water service repairs and upgrades. Meanwhile the utility continues to lose water from broken pipes in abandoned homes and buildings. Someone has to pay for that lost water. Someone must pay.

Barlow isn’t pulling any punches. She’s directly accusing the government of using the water crisis to drive poor black people out of the city, to cleanse it in order to facilitate gentrification.

The case of water cut-offs in the City of Detroit speaks to the deep racial divides and intractable economic and social inequality in access to services within the United States. The burden of paying for city services has fallen onto the residents who have stayed in the economically depressed city, most of whom are African-American. These residents have seen water rates rise by 119 per cent within the last decade. With official, understated unemployment rates at a record high and the official, understated poverty rate at about 40 per cent, Detroit water bills are unaffordable to a significant portion of the population.

The City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in the summer of 2013. A high-priced bankruptcy lawyer was named its Emergency Manager with a mandate to get the city back on its feet financially by imposing a savage austerity regime. within the United States. Noting is off the chopping block, including water utilities, which are being considered for regionalization, sale, lease, and/or a public-private partnership and are currently subject to mediation by a federal district judge. The Detroit People’s Water Board fears that authorities see people’s unpaid water bills as a “bad debt” and want to sweeten the pot for a private investor by imposing even more of the costs of the system on those least able to bear them. The service cut-offs for anyone more than two months behind in payments appear to be the city’s last-ditch attempt to make up for lost revenues. A contract with a private operator seeking profits will only lead to greater hikes in service fees and even less affordable, more unjust barriers to equitable access to vital water. That this massive human rights atrocity is occurring near the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet, with very little media attention, is a foreboding sign of the times.

The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) argues that these water cut-offs to poor Detroit households need to be understood within a broader context of Detroit’s appeal in the real estate market. With its proximity to the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, the city is considered prime real estate, and is available at fire sale prices. People’s overdue water bills are being transferred to their property taxes and people are losing their homes as a result. Given the utility’s lack of interest in cutting costs or generating revenues by collecting on the arrears of business users, fixing leaking pipes, and cutting off services to abandoned homes, the organization sees the crackdown as a ploy to drive poor people of color out of the city to facilitate gentrification – what the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization refers to as a “land-grab.”

Barlow writes of residents who cannot bathe their children and who have no water for cooking, no water for sanitation. She writes of parents fearing the loss of their children due to child welfare authorities acting on state policy there by working utilities in all homes housing children.

It is a nightmare. Imagine living in a society where the poor cannot secure access to clean water. This isn’t some impoverished failed state. It’s the United States. If it can happen there, is any place really secure?


  1. Maude always looked at me as if she was surprised and confused. We need someone like Maude, but without the surprise and confusion.

    1. I've always had a deep respect for her work, Anon. She has maintained a spotlight over the years on issues that our overlords would prefer we ignore.

  2. The UN has responded clearly and forcefully.