U.N. statement on Detroit situation released

 Editor’s Note: The statement below reflects the majority of the release from the U.N. Civil rights organizations, including the ACLU, have not yet released an official response.


Joint Press Statement by Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and to right to non-discrimination in this context, and Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation Visit to city of Detroit (United States of America) 18-20 October 2014

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 im-
pact 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,... 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... In addition, repeated cases of gross errors on water bills have been reported... In practice, people have no means to prove 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...

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...

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... 70.67 USD...

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 ... public humiliation of having a blue mark imprinted on the sidewalk in front of homes when their water was shut off...

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 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...

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... A human rights framework provides that people should not be deprived of these rights if they cannot pay... for reasons beyond their control...

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...

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 mobilization, intending to avoid the recurrence of widespread shut-offs due to inability to pay, but it was unfortunately not implemented...

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... 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...

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..., lack of due process in the way some disconnections have been carried out, and lack of effective remedies to challenge decisions.

Suggested recommendations: We suggest that the City of Detroit restore water connections to residents unable to pay and vulnerable groups of people, stop further disconnections..., and provide 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 [and] specific policies... 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..., which should be about 100 liters per person per day) and to housing... 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... 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 ... shut-offs or 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 [and] that the Govern-
ment advertise and make accessible property tax exemption programs for those [who are] 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...

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...

In our view, residents of Detroit should be ensured access to administrative and legal remedies, in particular those who are unable to pay current... bills 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.