The city of Detroit is going through the largest municipal bankruptcy America has ever seen. Residents have seen industry leave, property values plummet, and now, many are living without water.
More than 15,000 of Detroit’s residents have had their water shut off, and tens of thousands more could lose service over their past due bills, meaning they are at least 60 days past due or more than $150 behind in payments. According to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), nearly half of its customers are behind in their bills, around 90,000 delinquent accounts total, leaving the department with a debt around $90 million. The average amount past due is $540.
Twenty three percent, that’s Detroit’s unemployment rate- the highest out of the 50 largest cities in the country. With almost 40 percent of the city living below the poverty line, many residents are forced to choose between putting food on the table and paying their water bills.
It’s not just the city’s residents that are behind; Detroit’s businesses are also neglecting to pay. For example, Vargo Golf Co., a golf course management firm out of Oakland County, owes $478,000. Russell Industrial Associates owes more than $180,000. Professional sporting venues, like Joe Louis Arena (Detroit Red Wings) and Ford Field (Detroit Lions), were also behind on their bills.
Both GM and Chrysler are, or at least were, on the list of businesses that were behind on their water bills. Chrysler had paid about $2.9 million as of July 10, but GM is disputing its bill. The City of Detroit itself owes approximately $20 million for its municipal buildings; it’s paid about $4 million and the rest of the bill is “under review.”
A combined $9.5 million dollars is owed by 40 businesses in the city.
The biggest delinquent, however, is the State of Michigan. It owes DWSD more than $5 million. The bill, which has been disputed for years, is a result of leaky pipes at the city’s former state fairgrounds. The state says that they should not be held responsible as the bill is a result of those leaks, but other businesses in the city have not been given a pass in similar circumstances.
These delinquent accounts mean that the DWSD has to raise rates to cover costs, therefore making it even harder for people to keep up. Businesses would have an easier time paying their debts than the city’s poor, but the DWSD has not been going after them the way it has individual accounts. Earlier this month, the department issued 10-day shutoff notices to 250 businesses but would not say how many of those, if any, had their water cut off.
The loss of service to Detroit’s residents has sparked protests across the city. The National Nurses United, who organized one event, said the lack of water creates a public health threat. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) called the shutoffs “inhumane.” Even the United Nations suggested that the city is violating basic human rights.
Agreeing with the United Nations, people across the country are trying to figure out how to help. Groups have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water, and the Detroit Water Project (DWP) is looking to help pay some of those bills for those people who cannot. DWP, which does not take donations or handle any of the money itself, matches donors to people who need help. The donors then pay directly to the DWSD.
The group’s founders say they were looking for an immediate and direct way to help. “I actually wanted to pay a water bill for someone,” said Tiffani Bell. “In moments like these, people need direct help, not a paperwork-laden runaround.”
The project, which is only a couple weeks old, is already making an impact. “A lot of people like the idea of helping directly and were reluctant … to give to large nameless funds,” said co-founder Kristy Tillman. She added the “willingness of people to help once you tell them what you are doing” has been inspiring.
To help out a Detroit resident in need, check out the DWP here.