In October of 2014, in the midst of Detroit’s bankruptcy, a team of researchers from the United Nations visited the city and charged its leaders with human rights violations on an “unprecedented scale.” Starting in 2013, as many as 27,000 low-income residents, the “most vulnerable and poorest,” were being denied access to a vital resource because of their unpaid water bills—often caught between paying for their water or other necessities like food, shelter and electricity.
Although the U.N. experts’ comments led to much debate in the media and legal courts, and Detroit finally emerged from bankruptcy in 2018, the water shutoffs have not ceased. With over 17,000 households at risk of having their water disconnected (as of March 2018), medical experts have concluded that water shutoffs adversely affect not only the family denied water, but also significantly increase the risks of water-borne diseases to the entire block, creating a public health crisis.
Unable to pay delinquent bills often amounting in the thousands, several low-income residents have lost their homes due to tax foreclosures, as unpaid bills rolled off into already-high property taxes. These foreclosures further destabilize already precarious neighborhoods outside downtown Detroit, and disrupt preferred accounts of a “comeback” post-bankruptcy.
Recently, Detroit residents bore witness to yet another water-related crisis, as testing of water infrastructure in the city’s public schools revealed high concentrations of lead and copper, prompting the school district to shut down its water supply till the matter was resolved.
Detroit’s historic water crises have not suddenly materialized, but ensue from longtime policy-making apathy, lack of public investment in urban infrastructure, institutional inertia, and pervasive racial and class-based conflicts. Sadly, despite the unprecedented scale of these water shutoffs in the United States, these woes are hardly unique to the Motor City, but are evident in most American postindustrial cities, such as Dayton, Kansas City and St. Louis, which face severe environmental infrastructure challenges along with socioeconomic ones. Decades of urban-versus-suburban tension, as the city’s African-American population gradually grew to assume majority status, have made water access inherently political. This, in turn, has led to the marginalization in institutional discourse of those unable to pay their water bills as the “undeserving poor,” who would buy expensive smartphones rather than service their debts. As part of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, and while under a state-appointed Emergency Manager, it was forced to cede majority decision-making authority on its water infrastructure to the newly created Great Lakes Water Authority, controlled by representatives of Michigan state, and Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties. In effect, “the creation of the authority resulted in the privatization of water and sewage services in southeastern Michigan” (Sabourin 2016, 307), positioning water as a commodity subject to market forces and in need of purchase, rather than a public resource.