Meet The Detroit Residents Fighting Back Against Having Their Water Shut Off

This story, by Bryce Covert, was originally posted on Common Dreams, here.



On Wednesday, Michigan lawmakers held a hearing about water affordability and safety. Many of those who came to testify were residents of Detroit who have been dealing with water shutoffs, which resumed last week for thousands of people.

One of them was Annette Parham, who had her water shut off for about a year for owing $645. She’s been out of work for eight years, so at the time she didn’t have any income to pay off her bills. Meanwhile, she claims she was being charged for using more water than she needed to cook and clean for herself. Residents have seen their water bills rise 119 percent over the last decade with another 8.7 percent hike approved last year.

While the water was off, she got by the best that she could. She bought bottled water to use in her home. “I had one neighbor who let me wash clothes, another neighbor let me take a bath,” she said. But even without water flowing from her faucets, her bills kept accumulating because she says she was still being charged for sewage.

The experience wasn’t just difficult, but humiliating. When a house gets its water shutoff, the Water and Sewage Department marks the sidewalk in front in blue. “They went through the whole neighborhood, almost the whole east side,” she said. “When I be out walking, you could see all the blue.” Despite the fact that she had a lot of company, she hated the attention it drew to her. “The kids say, ‘Oh they cut your water off,’” she said. “It just got to the point that it was really embarrassing, hurt my feelings.”

She’s confident that if she had been able to take advantage of a plan based on her ability to pay, she could have kept her water on. “I would have been able to take care of it, to pay it,” she says.

Today, she’s homeless, moving from friend to friend who will take her in. “Now it’s just like, I’m waking up everyday to survive.”

Activists and organizers pushed state lawmakers on an affordability plan at the hearing in front of a packed room with at least seven lawmakers present, according to Sylvia Orduno with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. The Detroit city council approved a plan in 2006 that would have set water rates between 2 and 3 percent of a resident’s income, rather than a flat rate, but it was never implemented.

Their testimonies on Wednesday also raised the disparities between rates that Detroit residents pay and those paid by people living in the suburbs. While one person testified that her bill had reached $900 a month, a representative of Oakland County, a wealthier area, noted that her own bill is about $160 every three months. Those testifying asked “to get some equity in the rates,” Orduno said.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D), who helped organize the hearing, said her plan is to take what got discussed in the hearing and turn it into action. “We’ll be taking that information to hopefully work on some legislation,” she said. No bills have been introduced yet, and she noted that “everything is still in a little bit of an ideas stage.” But she would like to see a bill that would allow municipal water systems and others to create affordability plans, as well as look at shutoff protections. At the end of the hearing, Orduno said lawmakers brought up the possibility of a shutoff moratorium as well as forgiving bills for those who don’t even receive them for a certain amount of time.

Roslyne Walker, another Detroit resident, could really use an affordability plan. The water department had already threatened to shut her water off once for owing $600, but she enrolled in a program meant to help her keep her water on and pay it back. It’s not helping her very much. “The program they put me on, they want me to pay the current and late fees. That’s too much,” she said. Her bill, she says, is now $1,150. “Every month I pay $127 [but] it’s going up and up and up.”

Then on Sunday, she got home to find a shutoff notice on her door saying the last day of service will be June 9. If she loses her water, she’s certain she’ll lose her housing. She lost her job working for the city in 2008 and has since enrolled in Section 8 housing assistance. “When you don’t have a job, they pay your rent but they don’t pay your bills,” she noted. “If you can’t keep up your bills, you’ll get kicked out of Section 8.” She doesn’t have somewhere else to go. “My disabled son…will be out on the street,” she said. “I’m praying to god that doesn’t happen.”

She’s hoping that the hearing will bring her some relief. “If they gave us affordable water and anther contract or deal, we would be able to pay our water bills,” she said. She noted that many in attendance at the hearing were moved to tears by the stories they heard. “So maybe they’ll make a deal for them to stop turning off the water.”

International human rights network intervenes in Detroit water shutoffs case

International human rights network intervenes in case challenging large-scale disconnection of water supply to tens of thousands of low-income residents in Detroit


New York. February 9, 2015. The International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), a global network of over 220 groups and 50 individual advocates from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights, has requested leave from the U.S. District Court to be recognized as amicus curiae[1] in the case of Lyda et al. v. City of Detroit[2]in support of residents challenging the City of Detroit’s decision to cut off water supply to thousands of households unable to pay their bills.

As detailed in the plaintiffs’ complaint, by the end of August 2014 the City of Detroit had disconnected approximately 30,000 households of low-income persons and persons living in poverty from the municipal water supply and sewerage service, leaving them without access to drinking water and water for toilets and basic sanitation.

ESCR-Net, through its amicus brief, seeks to bolster the plaintiffs’ legal challenge by highlighting that the disconnections for inability to pay violate a range of legal obligations applicable to the U.S. under key international human rights treaties.

At the same time, ESCR-Net contends that Detroit’s City Charter, which includes a Declaration of Rights recognizing rights to water, sanitation and decent housing, must be respected. Pursuant to long-established principles of both U.S. law and international law, relevant domestic law must be interpreted consistently with treaty obligations.

Chris Grove, Executive Director of ESCR-Net, said, “Access to justice is required for violations of human rights, and we welcome the opportunity to assist the U.S. District Court with material relevant to consideration of the issues at stake. These issues impact the health, security and human dignity of thousands of Detroit residents and implicate our vision of a just society.”

“A number of human rights are arguably violated by these disconnections, including rights to water, sanitation, adequate housing, health, life, freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment, and non-discrimination. The international human rights obligations of the U.S. also apply to the City of Detroit, and these obligations require that denial of access to water be reversed immediately,” he added.

The City of Detroit’s water disconnection policy has shocked the international community and has prompted, among other reactions, the visit of two United Nations Special Procedures human rights experts to assess the situation in October 2014.[3] Despite the onset of winter, local groups report that the City has continued water shut-offs at the homes of low-income families, the elderly, and the infirmed.

It is hoped that the application of international human rights law will help the plaintiffs achieve a just and effective remedy, including renewed access to water and an end to any further disconnections.

A copy of the amicus curiae brief is available at


About ESCR-Net

ESCR-Net is the largest global network of human rights organizations, grassroots groups and advocates working to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all. Please visit

This action is being led by ESCR-Net Strategic Litigation Working Group members Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia), the Global Initiative on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR), the Social Rights Advocacy Centre (SRAC), and the Social Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI).

For information regarding this amicus intervention, contact:

For information on the situation in Detroit or to speak with residents, contact:

Marian Kramer (313-471-9241), Maureen Taylor (313-729-5558) or Sylvia Orduño (734-846-9465). Office Tel. +1-313-964-0618

[1] An amicus curiae (or ‘friend of the Court’) is a person or organization who, although not a party to a case, is granted leave to submit material to the Court relevant to the disposition of the case and not already brought to the Court’s attention by the parties.

[2]Lyda et al. v. City of Detroit, Case No. 2:15-cv-10038-BAF-RSW, before Hon. Bernard A. Friedman in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division.

The Fight for a Human Right: short film directed by WSU student and Freedom Tour 2013 alum

This short video on the right to water was directed by Anderson Tilson, a lifelong Detroiter and current WSU student who was on MCHR’s 2013 Freedom Tour. The film features interviews with a couple of Detroit activists, including MCHR board member Kim Redigan.