Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Detroit: Myths & A Modest Proposal

By Tommy Airey

Detroit is today more conundrum than solution. The City of Cars stands as neither "damnation incarnate" nor "salvation-in-the-making," but as sign to be read.
James Perkinson, Messianism Against Christology (2013)

Last Monday morning, I biked through the late Spring humidity to a press conference staged at The Spirit of Detroit, a large 1950s era bronze sculpture of a white male with the symbol of God in his left hand and a small family in his right. Beyond him is etched the ancient words from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
The nine men and women hosting the presser were part of The People’s Water Board, an ongoing experiment in grassroots activism in Detroit, a cohort of 22 different peace & justice organizations. These leaders, from the seminary trained to single mothers, spend their free time and resources advocating for the city’s most vulnerable, many of whom have recently had their water shut-off because they are 2 months or $150 behind on their payments. So far, more than 30,000 homes denied water by the city. 30,000 more to come.

While they made their case for a water affordability plan, hordes of white businessmen in suits pretended to be oblivious as they strode past, on their way into the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, named after the first black mayor of Detroit. A security guard and police officer were walking around casually cautious: just in case one of the single mothers got out of hand?

This old fur-trading post-turned-auto-industry-metropolis has been decimated in the past half century as industry fled to the dirty South and Mexico and automation transformed workers into meaninglessness. Hundreds of thousands of black people have been steamrolled by these market-driven decisions made by corporate and government elites. During this same chapter, hordes of white residents transported themselves to the “better life” in the suburbs.

The Myth & Irony of Assistance

The residents of this city of less than 700,000, 40% of whom are surviving below the federal poverty level, are getting pummeled with water bills with rates twice the national average. Yet, Detroit’s mayor and newly minted regional water authority continue to confidently propogate a concisely communicated two-part solution to keep taps flowing: (1) placing residents on a payment-plan that calls for a 10% down payment and (2) calling for struggling residents to apply for funds from foundations set-up for financial assistance.

Unfortunately, these solutions haven’t solved much. The problem is that (A) most residents still cannot afford their monthly bills, let alone start paying down their principal and (B) most residents do not even qualify for financial assistance (a nasty blend of requirements that are difficult to navigate and, in the end, deny too many residents the assistance they desperately need).

According to the rules set up by the foundations behind these funds, in order to qualify for this assistance, applicants must not have had their water shut-off either too recently or too long ago, and their outstanding bill owed to the water department cannot be either above or below certain amounts. There’s a small window of opportunity in this city.

The biggest problem of all, though, is one that is systemic and theological. It turns human beings into beggars by withholding from them a realistic chance of paying for a resource that is not a utility. Water is part of the commons. It is a public trust. God rains on the righteous and the wicked. We all get wet and we all should get to drink. Yet, no one at this press conference was asking for free water.

The irony of this whole debacle is that upwardly mobile white folks have relied heavily on government funds to subsidize their own suburban dreams. The freeways were funded by the federal government, which also cleared out poor and middle-class black neighborhoods to make space for them. Ditto for their GI Bill & FHA-backed home loans, available only to white families through most of the 60s, with racial strategies like restrictive covenants, redlining, fear and intimidation taking it into the 70s and beyond.

Meanwhile, their beloved sports teams play in stadiums and arenas built with precious tax revenue from the city of Detroit. And their water is piped into the suburbs from a Detroit-built infrastructure and sold at wholesale prices—these municipalities then jack up the prices to their residents to raise revenue for their projects. In short, white people from the ‘burbs have been cherry-picking Detroit for decades.

The Real Solution: Affordability

It’s time to reverse the momentum. The city of Detroit could easily provide affordable water at no more than 2.5% of a resident’s income—a standard proclaimed by the federal government (EPA) 40 years ago and passed by Detroit city council a decade ago (but not implemented). A Detroiter who is surviving on a $700 SSI check would pay $17.50 per month for water for her family.

Detroit could place a 25-cent fee on beer & wine sold in restaurants, bars & casinos (breweries selling $5 pints are bubbling up all over the city) and a 50-cent tax on all tickets & parking to concerts & professional sporting events (almost 4.5 million tickets sold annually). If you’ve got $100 to pay for a night of parking, microbrews and baseball, you can fork over a few extra bucks to cover water for the resilient ones of this city. Sure enough, this city does have resources to support those Jesus called “the least of these.”

White suburbanites will moan and wail about how the city is unfairly targeting them. But it is in the interest of all municipalities to strategically tax visitors that come to their city. This is what the city of Anaheim does with its 15% bed tax for all the tourists that flock to Disneyland every year. It’s what Detroit does with their 15% occupancy tax for hotels and casinos.

The chamber of commerce will cynically counter that a tax will cause demand for these products and services to go down and that it will be bad for business and stifle further development (the economic concept of elasticity). But let’s all be honest: Metro Detroiters (read: white suburbanites) love their sports and alcohol too much to let a little excise tax keep them from their guilty pleasures. It turns out we all have our addictions.

If the Spirit of Detroit is truly about liberty, then city leaders will take creative and necessary steps to ensure that all residents will have as basic a human right as flowing water in their homes. Most of these struggling Detroiters hail from families who have stayed and paid and refused to walk away from this blighted and abandoned city when so many others fled. The bottom line: does this city have the political will to take care of its most vulnerable and marginalized residents?

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