Imagine Your Water Bill Shooting Up to $4,000: Inside One of Detroit’s Biggest Crises

Ricardo Russell’s monthly water bill averaged around $60 at his home on Detroit’s west side. Then in January he opened an envelope from the Detroit Water Department claiming he had used $2,000 worth of water—in one month.

Russell, 37, went down to the city’s water department to ask a representative why his December bill was so high. “The lady thought I owned a business or something,” he told me during one Saturday morning in midtown Detroit in late October. “She asked, ‘Did the business go up?’ And I said, ‘It’s a residential street, it’s a residential house. It’s only me there. There’s nothing abnormal going on.’”

The city representative said she would send someone out to Russell’s home. Meanwhile, Russell cut off water access in every location in the house, except for the bathroom. The February bill dropped down to $1,150, still well above the $60 Russell normally pays. When a technician visited Russell’s home, he said there was an issue with the meter and replaced it. Russell went back to the water department to see if he could get his bill reduced, and was told to hire a plumber to determine if a pipe was broken. He hired a plumber, who charged $150 an hour, to check all of the pipes in the home.

The plumber, Russell said, found a pipe the size of a spoon with a crack in it that was connected outside of his home where the city pulls water into his home. The plumber replaced that pipe and Russell’s water bill shot down to $40 the next month. But when Russell asked the water department if the balance on his bill could be reduced, he was told there was nothing that could be done. He says he was placed on a payment plan that required him to pay 20 percent of his total bill upfront and the rest in monthly installments for the remaining 11 months. The bill was more than $4,000 at that point, so he had to pay at least $400 immediately.

Russell worked in technical support management before having to leave his job on disability and is currently enrolled as a full-time PhD student at Central Michigan University. He wasn’t making enough money to make an upfront payment and he claims the representative told him he either had to make a payment immediately or risk having his water cut off.

“I came up with the $400 because I didn’t want the water cut off,” he said. “Because if they cut the water off then they charge you to put the water back on. It’s crazy.”

That is how most Detroiters see the state of affairs in their city. Crazy.

The city has cut off water to at least 27,000 residences this year and around 10,000 households don’t have any running water, according to Al Jazeera. The constant refrain from city officials has been that the city has to shore up as much revenue as possible to recover from its bankruptcy filing.

Lawyers on behalf of city residents sued to halt the shutoffs, but bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes ruled that he didn’t have the power to reverse the shutoffs, according to the Detroit News. Protesters argued that water was a human right, but Rhodes didn’t agree.

“There is no such right or law,” he said in his ruling at the end of September.

If you live outside of Detroit, you’re likely to get the impression that most of the people who haven’t paid their water bills are simply poor, fiscally irresponsible people. During an MSNBC broadcast this summer, local television reporter Hank Winchester said that “there are many residents in need, but, and this is where it gets controversial, who simply don’t want to pay the water bill, who’d rather spend money on cable.” In that particular instance the viewing public heard a rare counter to Winchester’s claim onair. Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, would have none of it:

“Before I answer that let me say, ‘Shame on [Winchester]. Shame on him for putting that lie … and that disinformation out on the air. To suggest that people don’t want to pay for a water bill is scandalous. What is at stake here is that there are tens of thousands of low-income families who cannot pay rising water bill costs. The cost of living is going up. The chances of living are going down. And we’ve got these reporters out here, like this guy, that’s just standing on the side of the people that have money.”

During my 10-day visit to my hometown, Detroit, that was the general sentiment I heard about the water crisis from dozens of people: that the media was siding with the power brokers. But their frustrations don’t end at the tap.

“You can’t isolate the water shutoffs from the fact that 60 percent of the kids here live in poverty,” Sam Riddle, a longtime political insider, told me during a visit to the offices of the Michigan Chronicle, where he is a columnist. “We have one of the highest infant mortality [rates] anywhere on the planet. This isn’t rhetoric. These are the ugly realities of what it is to have two Detroits: a Detroit where the PR machine is flourishing, talking about the great comeback of Detroit, when you’ve got another Detroit which has literally an economic wall around it.”

That economic wall is the rapidly developing midtown section of Detroit, where very little of the economic blight discussed in national media can be found. On the other side of that wall, however, are all of the negative realties you’ve heard about.

There is a sense from long-time residents that they are being left behind. First by the city officials they elect into office, and then by the state, an entity the city has never really had good relations with since the 1967 riots. Or, as most Detroiters would put it, when the city became black after white residents fled to the suburbs.

Detroiters are a very proud people and will direct a fiery retort toward anyone they feel misrepresents their city, as Taylor did on national television. Indeed, if you drive around most parts of Detroit, much of what you have read about the Motor City seems true. One can drive blocks and see streets full of abandoned homes and darkened neighborhoods. But on those same streets live hardworking people who barely reflect the stereotypical Detroiters who don’t care about their communities.

One afternoon, I visited a longtime neighbor, Diane, a retired autoworker who lives on Scotten Avenue, where I lived until the age of 18. She maintains her home and pays her bills. I lived four houses down from her, but vacant lots have replaced those houses. She and another neighbor pay to keep the grass cut in the vacant lots on the street. “All he wants is gas money for the lawnmower,” she told me about the man who refuses to take cash payments for his work.

Not all the homes have incomes like hers, but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of pride. Right next to a dilapidated home is a meticulously manicured picture-perfect home. There are neighborhoods in Detroit like the University District on the city’s west side, where no signs of the city’s decay are present. It is an upper-middle-class community where retired civil servants, lawyers, doctors and other white- and blue-collar professionals live. My godmother, Rosa Stephens, has been a resident of the neighborhood for more than 30 years. A former high school administrator who taught in the Detroit Public School system for nearly 30 years, she resurrected the first block club in her neighborhood. Neighbors have volunteered their time to patrol the streets for more than 36 years.

Rosa also trained some of her students and entered them into city and statewide oratorical competitions. I was one of her students who went on to win scholarships for college from some of those competitions. Dozens of students benefited from her tutelage and became productive citizens of Detroit. Like my former neighbor, Diane, Rosa doesn’t plan on moving out of Detroit either.

Yet the city has seen a drastic drop in population since I last lived there in 1998, when I finished high school. Right now, 688,701 people call the Motor City home. There were 951,270 people in the city in 2000, a more than 20 percent drop; 1990 was the last year the city had more than one million people. Back in 1960, more than 1.8 million people lived in Detroit.

Many of my friends and former teachers no longer live in the city. There are many reasons for this: lack of employment opportunities, car insurance costs, better jobs elsewhere, crime, increasing dilapidation around their well-kept homes, no faith in the city. The last reason seems to be a deciding factor for most people I spoke to.

Without question, Detroit’s political and economic climate has been the most tumultuous of any major city in America. Detroit filed for bankruptcy this year, the first major city to do so in US history. The Detroit Public School system is under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Its police force, though led by a new, competent chief according to most accounts, pays its police officers so little that officers at Wayne State University, a local city college, make more money than city cops.

On the political scene, many of the city’s politicians and city workers have been sent to the slammer after being convicted on federal and local corruption charges. Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a man many thought would run for president someday, is serving more than 40 years in federal prison on corruption charges. Former city council president Charles Pugh abandoned his post after allegations that he had an improper relationship with a minor; supposedly, he is busing tables in Harlem. Several council members who ran on reforming the city served one term and left. Saunteel Jenkins left her council seat during her second term and took a job at a non-profit that reportedly pays more than double her salary. While there was nothing illegal about her move, there is the feeling that no one in power is willing to take a rough ride for Detroiters who have devoted their lives to the city.

During a conversation with my godmother, I asked her why Detroiters continue to vote people into office who don’t seem to care about their city. She replied with a common response I heard from most residents I spoke to during my stay: “What choices do we have?”

On October 19, representatives from the United Nations sat on a panel at a town hall at Wayne County Community College in downtown Detroit, along with other local leaders in media, academia and activism, to hear more than 300 residents share grievances about their water issues. None of the people at that town hall came across as fiscally irresponsible, but all shared an emotion that resonates around Detroit: a sense of abandonment by their elected officials and a state that doesn’t seem to think they are capable of empowering themselves.

One resident after another stepped up to the microphone to express how they were burdened by water bills they feel they aren’t legally obligated to pay. One resident said her bill shot up because neighbors were siphoning water from the spigot on the side of her home. Others claimed the city set them up on payment plans that weren’t proportional to their incomes. Tijuana Morris told the audience that the water department charged outright for water she never used.

On October 31, 2000, Morris, a retired ex-cop with the Detroit Police Department, lost her home in a fire and moved into an apartment. Over a four-month period, she received bills for water usage at the home. She said she made sure to call the water department to shut off the water at her burned-down home, as she was no longer living there. She says she was still forced to pay.

The loss of her home strained her finances, and Morris says the insurance company would not insure the property because it had suffered too much damage. She filed for bankruptcy in 2005, which made her situation worse. During all of this, Morris had to deal with a water company she says charged her for water she never used. After four years, the bill was finally resolved, but the ordeal ruined her credit and she is still feeling the wounds from that battle.

Morris was one of thousands of retired cops in Detroit who had her medical benefits eliminated this spring as part of Detroit’s efforts to clear debt to pull itself out of bankruptcy. Much of her pension goes to covering her medical costs. Morris says during the four years she tried to resolve her water bill, she would constantly called the water department but her calls were never returned. And when she did meet representatives, she found them to be unresponsive and inflexible. Even when she attended city council meetings, she says she found it hard to get people to address her concerns about the water department. Such is the reality of navigating city bureaucracy, she says.

“When people continuously go and try to resolve things, they get a deaf ear,” Morris told me one afternoon at a downtown café. “And some people say, what’s the point? They aren’t going to listen.”

AlterNet made several attempts to reach the Detroit Water Department for comment, but got no response.

Tijuana Morris and the other retirees in Detroit who pay their taxes, feel like their efforts aren’t reaping the political and governmental benefits they deserve.

For those who claim Detroiters have only themselves to blame for their city’s decline, consider how challenging it is just to navigate the city without a car. Nearly 40 percent of Detroit’s population lives under the poverty line and they rely on public transportation. Yet bus routes have been cut to the bone, and it’s almost impossible to get around Detroit without a vehicle. Imagine how many people might have been at that water shutoff townhall if public transportation in Detroit was comparable to Chicago, New York City or Washington, DC?

The average American household pays $50 per month for water, but Detroiters pay more than $70 per month despite living in a state that hosts 21 percent of the earth’s fresh water supply. The Detroit City Council approved an 8.7 percent water rate increase to help finance repairs for the aging water system. Still, in a city where many are struggling, $5 added to a utility bill is significant.

The turmoil we see unfolding in Detroit is not merely the result of a poor, disengaged constituency; it is the breakdown of city government offering one inadequate service after another, and the local population has taken a drubbing as a result.

L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive for neighboring Oakland County, one of the wealthiest counties in the US, has spoken derisively about Detroit for decades. In a New Yorker article, Patterson chided Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor. He made a racially offensive joke when asked by the reporter how Detroit could fix its financial issues. “I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.’”

There are many reports about Detroiters who believe that regional racism plays a significant role in preventing the city from making an economic comeback. Indeed, the city has its own house to clean, but based on national media coverage, you would think Detroit is devoid of people who are fighting against blight and taking multiple buses to jobs hours outside of the city just to make ends meet. Instead of focusing exclusively on a population that has been economically battered and politically betrayed, more attention should be focused on how state and city officials can work with residents who are fighting hard to resurrect their city.

Those Detroiters do exist and they should be recognized. They are a resilient people whose pride will never allow you to see their worst, and like the retired autoworker, Diane, they always make sure to keep the grass cut.