By Serena Maria Daniels
DETROIT (Reuters) - Two United Nations human rights officials on Monday began touring Detroit to assess the impact of widespread water disconnections on residents in an effort by city officials to shore up some $90 million in overdue bills.
During their three-day visit to Detroit, housing and sanitation experts Leilani Farha and Catarina de Albuquerque are expected to meet with affected residents, civil rights activists and local officials after the U.N. called the shutoffs "an affront to human rights" this summer.
This summer Detroit began to pare down $90 million in overdue bills.
Customers who owe more than $150 or who are 60 days late in payment are in jeopardy of getting their water shutoff, according to the water and sewer department.
According to the United Nations estimates, more than 27,000 customers have had water service disconnected in 2014. After 19,000 homes lost water access this summer, people from across the U.S. sent gallon jugs to the city and residents protested in the streets.
On Monday, the two U.N. officials met with Mayor Mike Duggan to discuss the shutoffs. In August, Duggan suspended shutoffs for a month and implemented a plan to help low-income customers pay their bills.
The U.N. officials are recommending the city cease shutoffs until an affordability program is implemented for low-income residents and to enact policies to address the needs of the city's most vulnerable residents. They also are recommending city leaders assess the impact or widespread water shutoffs on their own.
De Albuquerque and Farha said the shutoffs disproportionately impacts the city's low-income and black population and unfairly forces residences to choose between paying for housing or paying for water service.
"What we have here is a man-made perfect storm," said de Albuquerque said.
The U.N. visit comes after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who is overseeing Detroit's historic bankruptcy proceedings, refused in September a request by activists for a six-month moratorium against the shut-offs.
Rhodes said a moratorium would have put in jeopardy a $4.5 million water affordability fund and a cap on rate increases.
(Reporting by Serena Maria Daniels in Detroit; Editing by Brendan O'Brien and Sandra Maler)