United Nations rapporteurs to visit Detroit over water shutoff controversy

This article was originally posted on MLive.com

DETROIT, MI — Two experts who report to the United Nations on water and housing issues plan to visit Detroit on Oct. 20, according to an official from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Detroit, as part of efforts to improve revenue collection while it addresses massive debt problems in bankruptcy court, began aggressively disconnecting water from non-paying customers in the spring.

Thousands of households were cut off from water as the city sought to arrange payment plans and collect initial payments on overdue bills before restoring water access.

The shutoffs sparked persistent protests, and a panel of U.N. experts in June called the shutoffs a violation of international human rights.

“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, at the time.

Leilani Farha, a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, said that if the water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans, “they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the US has ratified.”

Amid the controversy and frequent protests, Detroit Emergency Manger Kevyn Orr in July handed control over the city’s water department to the mayor’s office.

That led to the approval of a deal between the city and suburban communities to create a new regional water authority.

The suburbs will pay the city $50 million a year to lease 3,000 miles of pipe and other system assets under the plan, allowing the creation of a $4.5 million annual fund to help customers in need pay their water bills.

Regular shutoffs continue, however, and the judge in Detroit’s bankruptcy case declined to intervene when advocates when appealed to him last month.

Now de Albuquerque and Farha plan to visit Detroit and address media on Oct. 20 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, according to Ahreum Lee, a human rights officer with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

More details on the visit were to be released later this week.