Upon invitation from civil society organizations, we visited the city of Detroit (Michigan – USA) from 18 to 20 October 2014. The purpose of this informal visit was to learn more about the impact of water disconnections on the living conditions of individuals and households and on their human rights to water, sanitation and housing, and to discuss international standards on human rights.
During the visit, we went to different parts of Detroit and met with people whose water had been shut off and others who are struggling to pay expensive water bills to avoid shut-offs. We listened to stories from single mothers with low income, older persons, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. We also discussed the situation with Mayor Duggan, City Council, Congressman Conyers, civil society organizations, Detroit water department workers, and with lawyers.
Detroit is undergoing large-scale water disconnections. This year alone, at least 27,000 households have had their services disconnected. While it is not the first time in recent decades that city residents are confronted with such a critical situation, the scale of water shut-offs carried out by a contracted company since last year is an unprecedented level. The utility has passed on the increased costs of leakages due to an aging infrastructure onto all remaining residents by increasing water rates by 8.7 percent. This, combined with the decreased number of customers, and increased unemployment rate, has made water bills increasingly unaffordable to thousands of residents in Detroit living under the poverty line. In addition, repeated cases of gross errors on water bills have been reported, which are also used as a ground for disconnections. In practice, people have no means to prove the errors and hence the bills are impossible to challenge.
Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity – they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.
Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family. It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread.
In addition, thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children. In many cases, unpaid water bills are being attached to property taxes increasing the risk of foreclosure.
Disproportionate effects on vulnerable people and low income African Americans
About 80 percent of the population of Detroit is African American. According to data from 2013, 40.7 percent of Detroit’s population lives below the poverty level, 99 percent of the poor are African American. Twenty percent of the population is living on 800 USD or less per month, while the average monthly water bill is currently 70.67 USD. This is simply unaffordable for thousands of residents, mostly African Americans.
We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity.
We were also distressed to learn from the low-income African American residents of the impossible choices they are being compelled to make – to either pay their rent or their medical bill, or to pay their water bill.
It was touching to witness mothers’ courage to strive to keep their children at home, and the support people were providing to each other to live in these unbearable circumstances. And it was heartbreaking to hear of the stigmatization associated with the shut-offs – in particular the public humiliation of having a blue mark imprinted on the sidewalk in front of homes when their water was shut off due to unpaid bills.
In line with the mandates entrusted to us by the Human Rights Council, we would like to underline that the United States is bound by international human rights law and principles, including the right to life as well as the right to non-discrimination with respect to housing, water and sanitation and the highest attainable standard of health. These obligations apply to all levels of Government – federal, state and municipal. Moreover, they also extend to the various functions of State, including the judiciary.
The rights to non-discrimination and equality are core principles of international human rights law. Governments are obliged not only to refrain from discrimination in the design and implementation of laws and policies, but must strive to ensure substantive equality for all. The United States has ratified the United Nations Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination which explicitly prohibits and calls for the elimination of racial discrimination in relation to several human rights directly affected by water disconnections, including the right to housing and the right to public health.
The human rights to water and sanitation and to adequate housing
The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and to adequate housing both derive from the right to an adequate standard of living which is protected under, inter alia, article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is fully applicable to the United States. In addition, adequate housing and access to safe water are clearly essential to maintain life and health, and the right to life is found in treaties the United States has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Ensuring freedom from discrimination does not mean that everyone should be treated equally when their circumstances are different. Water and sanitation does not have to be free. It must rather be affordable for all. The price cannot put a household in debt or limit access to essential services such as food or medicine. A human rights framework provides that people should not be deprived of these rights if they cannot pay the bill for reasons beyond their control. Disconnections of water due to non-payment are permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. When people are genuinely unable to pay the bill, it is the State’s obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, a specially low tariff or subsidies, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation for all. Not doing so amounts to a human rights violation.
Similarly, the human right to adequate housing means that housing must be affordable, including the costs of water, sanitation and other housing-related services. Houses without water and sanitation are unsafe and uninhabitable. They expose residents to disease, exacerbate existing health conditions, and threaten the security of tenure of residents. If costs associated with housing are not in line with income levels, housing is rendered unaffordable for many low-income residents, leading to accumulated arrears which in turn create real risks for foreclosure, eviction and homelessness. This contravenes the State’s obligation to ensure tenants and owners enjoy secure tenure.
City residents have been fighting against water bills, which are higher than the national average, for many years. The 2006 Water Affordability Plan, for example, was the result of community mobilisation, intending to avoid the recurrence of widespread shut-offs due to inability to pay, but it was unfortunately not implemented. In recent months, the local government has taken some measures. However, such initiatives are insufficient to ensure affordability of water and sanitation and adequate housing. The Mayor’s 10 point plan, for instance, does not seem to take into consideration the ability of chronically low-income persons to pay water bills and arrears, unlike more reasonable affordability models found in other states in the United States.
We have heard of a number of households who have been “constructively” evicted from their homes due to the water being shut-off and are now homeless. We also learned that as a result of a law adopted in September 2014, those who are homeless will be subject to criminal sanction if they are found to be living in a dwelling without a valid lease, which threatens those who choose to live in abandoned or foreclosed homes and may threaten evictees harboured by friends or family.
These issues did not come as a surprise, even if the magnitude of people affected deeply startled us. In recent years both our mandates have officially visited the United States of America at the invitation of the United States Government. In 2011, the Special Rapporteur on the human right of water and sanitation encouraged the United States Government to adopt a mandatory federal minimum standard on affordability for water and sanitation, to ensure due process guarantees and to provide protection against disconnections for people living in poverty. In 2009, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing raised concerns about the housing conditions of African Americans and other low-income population groups. She noted the lack of affordable housing, substandard conditions of existing housing units and their experiences of discrimination.
Due process and access to justice
We also heard testimonies from residents about the lack of information about the shut-offs, confusion regarding water bills and notices of unpaid bills, lack of due process in the way some disconnections have been carried out, and lack of effective remedies to challenge decisions.
We suggest that the City of Detroit restore water connections to residents unable to pay and vulnerable groups of people, stop further disconnections of water when residents are unable to pay, and provide them the opportunity to seek assistance that must be made available through social assistance schemes.
We also urge the City of Detroit, the state of Michigan and the national government to adopt a mandatory affordability threshold. In addition to this, specific policies should be adopted to ensure specific support to people who live in poverty.
We suggest that the City of Detroit provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation (minimum amount of water necessary for personal and domestic uses, which should be about 100 liters per person per day) and to housing when people are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to cover the costs themselves. In such measures, protection of vulnerable groups of people (those with disabilities, chronic illnesses, with children, etc) must be prioritized.
We recommend that the authorities make an urgent assessment of the public health consequences for the individual, schools and community of the water shut-offs, and take steps to mitigate adverse impacts.
We recommend Governments make every effort to ensure that the most vulnerable, including those who reside in Section.8 housing, are not evicted from or lose their housing as a result of water shut-offs or water bill arrears.
We recommend that the city of Detroit stop converting delinquent water bills to property liens for collection and enforcement through the tax foreclosure process. We further recommend that the Government advertise and make accessible property tax exemption programs for those living in low-income.
In the event that an individual or family is rendered homeless due to water shut-offs, the city of Detroit must have in place emergency services to ensure alternate accommodation with running water is available. Immediate and urgent steps must be taken to find long-term viable housing solutions for these residents.
We recommend that the Federal Government immediately undertake an investigation into the water shut-offs to determine if they are having a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other groups protected against discrimination.
Federal and state agencies with relevant authority should require water and sanitation utilities, as a condition for funding and permits, to collect data and report annually on water shut-offs by age, income level, disability, race, and chronic illness. This information should be made publically available. Any practice that has a discriminatory impact must be addressed and discontinued.
In our view, residents of Detroit should be ensured access to administrative and legal remedies, in particular those who are unable to pay current water bills and/or arrears or who want to challenge the amount of their water bills or the cutting-off of their water supply. These procedures must be made public and accessible, and adequately resourced.