OPINION: Now is the time to act on water affordability

A recent report from the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley once again designated Detroit as one of the most racially segregated regions in the country.  It is not just segregation of race.  Spatial-structural racism is the hyper segregation of race, wealth and opportunity.  This segregation lies at the root of Detroit’s multiple crises – job crises, housing crises and water crises.

In a crisis, you act.  You do not sit around and wait.  But waiting is just what Gary Brown and Abdul El-Sayed have in mind in their Op-Ed “Water affordability, infrastructure, must be part of Biden bills.”  Do not get us wrong.  There are a number of important provisions in the proposed legislation.  It should pass, but this is just one part of a much larger puzzle.

What struck us as ironic was their sense of urgency in wanting federal action, while critical local actions are neglected.  Here are some of the things that Mr. Brown, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) and elected officials can do now.

Stop confusing “assistance” with “affordability.”  Assistance is a short-term Band-Aid that does nothing about the structural causes of the problem.  On the other hand, water affordability plans restructure rates on a sliding income scale that can generate more revenue and more equity.  We need permanent affordability, not ad hoc forms of assistance.

Lay the groundwork not just for a water affordability plan for DWSD but a plan for the entire GLWA footprint as a constructive step towards more significant regional racial equity.  GLWA is a Detroit-owned asset that enabled “white flight” and made the accumulation of regional wealth possible.  GLWA should start approaching rates and affordability from a system-wide frame.

Develop effective strategies for dealing with residential flooding in Detroit. Start by acknowledging that the pipes in southeast Detroit cannot take additional water; and are overflowing with water from distant parts of Oakland and Macomb counties.

Stop opposing community-led initiatives like the revised Charter proposal that was defeated on Aug. 3, and which contained multiple public-health-focused water provisions, without proposing constructive alternatives.  

Make the moratorium on water shutoffs permanent.  Water is a human and public health necessity whether there is a pandemic or not.

Start being more transparent and accountable in public reporting of DWSD restoration and shutoff data.

Implement actual community benefit provisions for DWSD infrastructure contracts and service agreements.

Develop realistic plans for residential debt forgiveness.  Personal debt is often a result of systemic inequality.  Give people constructive paths forward and lifelines of opportunity, not to be cudgeled by past debt.

Restore Community Block Grant dollars for home repairs, along with increased funding for plumbing repairs.  If someone has a leaky roof, they can’t get other repair services.  But if they could fix the roof independently, they would not need help with the other repairs.

Stop shaming those unable to pay their water bills as a tool to justify political inaction.  No one voluntarily chooses to live without water. No one.

Finally, start focusing on systems of spatial-structural racism as the root cause of the water crisis.  Detroit did not become the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country by accident.  The individual and collective decisions of generations of metropolitan Detroiters, now in predominately white suburbs, helped create geography where opportunity infrastructures are open for some. Yet, the same opportunity is systemically denied to others whose only mistake was being born in the wrong zip code.


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