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Citizen research links Detroit water shutoffs, tax foreclosures

A map shows the link between water debt and property tax foreclosures in Detroit.
We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective
A map shows the link between water debt and property tax foreclosures in Detroit.

New citizen-led research is drawing a link between two of Detroit’s biggest social crises: water service shutoffs, and property tax foreclosures.

The We the People of Detroit Community Research Collectivegathered that data for its report “Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Neighborhoods in Detroit.”

Detroit’s aggressive and controversial water shutoff policy for delinquent households was ramped up during the city’s bankruptcy, and has continued with some modifications since then.

The link with property tax foreclosure stems from a 2006 Detroit water department decision to roll unpaid water bills onto property taxes.

By state law, counties can foreclose on homes with unpaid property taxes after three years. Wayne County has auctioned off tens of thousands of tax-foreclosed properties in the past several years, the vast majority of them in Detroit.

The researchers cross-referenced and mapped 2014 data on water bill debt with auctioned homes. It found a significant link in many neighborhoods, particularly on Detroit’s far east and far west sides.

Citywide, 11,979 of homes that went to auction had water debt included with property taxes. In dozens of census tracts, 12-26% of the tax-foreclosed homes fell into that category.

The researchers warn this isn’t quite the full picture. That’s partly because they had trouble getting some data from the city of Detroit. In other cases, that data was either incomplete or contradictory.

Still, they say it’s enough to conclude that these overlapping policies, among others, amount to a structural racism that leaves many black Detroiters out of the city’s much-touted revitalization.

Some go even further. “The coincidence of water shutoffs and foreclosures -- that they happen together in certain areas in a consistent manner -- leads us to believe that it’s not random, that there’s some strategy in motion,” said We the People member Gloria House.

“We think it’s about displacing of populations, and dismantling neighborhoods.”

The group plans to continue its research, calling this report “phase one.”

“We are the only folks who have taken on this level of analytical assessing of our community, to see what the impact is of shutting off water,” said We the People President Monica Lewis-Patrick.

Those plans include engaging academics and researchers from across the country to continue mapping the effects of “austerity policies,” assessing community health needs, and a citizen-science project to test water in homes that have experienced service interruptions.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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