Water Shutoffs in Detroit

June 12, 2018

In 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) commenced the largest residential water shutoff in U.S. history and terminated water service to over 20,000 Detroit residents for lack of payment, without regard to residents’ health needs or ability to pay.  

DWSD’s internal documents revealed that due to its sloppy billing practices, it had not charged many customers for sewer service for several years. DWSD demanded a lump sum payment from its customers for those sewer charges which many of the city’s impoverished residents could not afford to pay. Other documents also revealed that residential customers with delinquent accounts were frequently billed for charges incurred by previous tenants. 

Due to the lack of notice provided to these customers before the shutoffs, as well as the fact that DWSD’s commercial customers with delinquent accounts were not similarly targeted for service termination, the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) wrote a joint letter to DWSD in 2014 that outlined why the shutoffs violated the residents’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. The ACLU and LDF then served as expert consultants in a lawsuit filed in bankruptcy court on behalf of civil rights organizations and residents without water that sought to restore water service to the city’s residents and stop future shutoffs. 

In 2014, Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes dismissed the lawsuit. On appeal, the ACLU of Michigan joined the legal team. Unfortunately, in 2016 the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case. Since that time, ACLU staff and volunteer attorneys have represented several individual water customers in administrative proceedings and have used their stories to make a case for a water affordability plan to the Board of Water Commissioners and recommend revisions to DWSD’s shut-off policies and procedures.  

In June 2018, after media reports of plans to shut off the water of 17,000 households, we wrote letters to DWSD and the Detroit Health Department on behalf of a coalition of attorneys, warning that shutoffs on that scale can cause disease epidemics and create a public health emergency.  

(Lyda v. City of Detroit; ACLU Attorneys Kary Moss, Mark Fancher, Bonsitu Kitaba-Gaviglio and Brooke Tucker; Monique Lin-Luse and Veronica Joice of LDF; co-counsel Alice Jennings, Jerry Goldberg, Kurt Thornbladh, Julie Hurwitz, John Philo, Sofia Nelson, Lori Lutz, Desiree Ferguson, Lorray Brown, Hugh Davis, Cynthia Heenan, Marilyn Mullane, Anthony Adams, and Matthew Erard.)