Detroit Mayor Faces Myriad of Problems as He Tries to Boost Population

Mike Duggan While Detroit’s new mayor Mike Duggan has pledged to increase its population, reversing a decades-long trend that has plagued the Motor City after the auto industry fled, a recent phenomenon won’t help his cause — the city in March began shutting off water service for up to 3,000 homes and businesses a week to stop the utility from hemorrhaging money.

The situation has gotten so bad that activist groups have called on the United Nations to intervene, seeking help in  a letter last week to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation.

“What we see is a violation of the human right to water,” Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project, told Al Jazeera America. “The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it.”

The groups accuse Detroit Water and Sewerage Department of charging unaffordable rates to Detroit citizens in an effort to slough off low-income customers to make it more attractive for private takeover. However,  the utility says it’s just trying to stay afloat—though the city acknowledges that at least a partial privatization of DWSD is being considered.

The DWSD is responsible for $5 billion of Detroit’s $18 billion in debt.

“We really don’t want to shut off anyone’s water, but it’s really our duty to go after those who don’t pay, because if they don’t pay then our other customers pay for them,” DWSD spokeswoman Curtrise Garner told Al Jazeera. “That’s not fair to our other customers.”

Of the DWSD’s 323,000 accounts, nearly 50 percent were behind on their payments in March, according to a story in the Detroit Free Press, leaving the utility with $175 million in outstanding bills.

The water arrears is just the latest of many problems Duggan will need to overcome if he’s going to convince people to move back to the city. Though Detroit is still among the top 20 most populated U.S. cities, its numbers have fallen from a peak of 1.85 million in 1950, when Detroit was the fifth biggest city in the U.S., to an estimated 688,000 today.

The city’s biggest problem is the municipal bankruptcy Detroit filed last July because of $18 billion in long-term obligations. A federal trial will be held in August on the viability of a debt-cutting plan pushed by the city’s powerful emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.

Duggan, a Democrat who took office in January, is hoping to get about $465 million in federal and other funding, which could come after the city emerges from bankruptcy. However, a White House task force last month recommended the city spend $850 million to fix or tear down 80,000 rundown structures, and clean garbage-strewn vacant lots.

Duggan said if he fails to bring people back to his city, then he shouldn’t be mayor anymore.

“The single standard a mayor should be defined on is whether the population of the city is going up or going down,” Duggan told the Wall Street Journal.

“A more achievable goal would be to slow the rate of population loss,” said Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan.


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