When the coast is clear, and the trucks from the contractor shutting off water for the city of Detroit have rolled away, the men with water keys come.
They offer residents whose supply has just been shut off a tempting deal. For $20, they will use their tools to turn the water main back on immediately, and illegally, sparing the household the agonising days spent without showering, cooking or flushing that have already been endured by at least 16,000 of their neighbours so far this year.
It is only the most desperate action being taken in response to the beleaguered city’s aggressive campaign to recoup $89m in overdue water bills by abruptly cutting the supplies of people behind on their payments. Amid growing anger, Detroit officials agreed in court on Monday to a two-week pause, to allow poor customers to come forward and show that they genuinely cannot afford to pay. But then the shutoffs will resume.
“You’re going to do what you have to do to get water back on in your home,” said Valerie Blakely, a community organiser and mother of five whose overdue bill stands at more than $1,000. “As far as I’m concerned, what the city is doing is the illegal activity. You’re not going to come and put us in a life-or-death situation and not have us act like we are fighting for our own survival.”
Some physically obstruct the contractors. Others leave cars parked over their mains at night. A guide circulating online instructs people how to lock the main back on and seal it in concrete. “If anyone from the city or water department asks what happened: the shutoff is outside your home,” it says. “Who knows what some radical did while you were asleep?”
But resistance is risky. A city inspection of 178 homes whose water was shut off last week found that 79 had restarted their supplies, triggering $21,750 in fines on top of what the residents already owed. Of 414 shut-off homes checked in June, 205 were found to have turned the water back on. A first-time penalty is $250. Being caught a second time carries a $500 fine. A third strike, supposedly, leads to the permanent termination of the house’s water supply.
“There are severe consequences,” said Bill Johnson, a spokesman for Detroit’s water and sewerage department. “People are making things worse for themselves. The penalties may be more than the actual bill.”
Johnson told reporters on Monday that city inspectors would be using the two-week hiatus to hunt for more users who had turned their water back on.
The penalties are the latest salvo in a battle between Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager overseeing Detroit’s unprecedented bankruptcy, and thousands of hard-up people in a once-proud American city where the median household income is now less than half the national average, and where adults with jobs and children not living in poverty are now in minorities.
Anyone who owes $150, or is two months overdue, on their water bills, faces shut-offs by the private contractor, Homrich, a demolition company that is being paid up to $6m in public funds. The city says that about 80,000 residential customers are now past due on their bills, owing a total of $43m – more than $535 on average. Last month, the city council approved an 8.7% increase on water prices, which will push household bills to almost twice the US average.
Orr describes the shutoffs as “a necessary part of Detroit’s restructuring” as it works to reduce the $18bn in debts it listed when filing for America’s biggest municipal bankruptcy a year ago. About $5.4bn of that total related to water and sewer bonds. Orr has said these creditors will be paid in full.
Yet opponents claim that he is simply scrambling to clean up the water department’s books for a privatisation that could push prices even higher – and that the total owed by the city’s struggling people is dwarfed by the fees Detroit is paying big banks after making bad financial bets. There is widespread anger, too, that homes have been targeted before the 21,000 delinquent businesses, schools and other non-residential properties, which together owe $46m. City officials claim that cutting off supplies in commercial properties is “more complicated”, and that more shut-off crews must first be hired and trained.
Orr also stresses that anyone with “demonstrated financial need” who approaches the water department before being cut off can enter more manageable payment plans – which, following Monday’s announcement, are going to be better publicised. Claiming that half of customers who are cut off settle their bills within 24 hours, allowing their service to be restored, city officials insist that genuinely poor residents are not being persecuted.
“These are not people who can’t afford to pay,” said Johnson. “They just don’t want to pay. These are people who are scamming, who want to scam the system.” He went on: “People pay their cable bill, their cell phone bill, all these other bills, and the water bill is the last one they will pay. Why? Because we have never had until this year an aggressive cut-off campaign”.
It is an allegation that enrages people on the ground. “That’s offensive for them to say, and is just blatant lies,” said Blakely. Campaigners assisting shut-off residents say that many do not know about the payment plans, or can not afford the 30% initial payment anyway. Those who do, and can, are made to wait hours on hold to customer service or wait all day in line.
Many of the people who settled up within 24 hours of being cut off, supporters say, were able to do so only after receiving emergency cash from churches, charities or friends. One resident told the Guardian that her neighbour raided funds set aside for her elderly mother’s prescriptions to get their water running again. “This is a public health emergency in America,” said Ann Rall, a leading figure in the Detroit People’s Water Board, a coalition of interested groups. “It is an absolute outrage”.