Austerity Water Crises and Urban Redevelopment: Interlocking Systems of Dispossession

Authors: Melissa Heil*, University of Illinois
Topics: Urban Geography
Keywords: water, social reproduction, austerity, urban redevelopment, Detroit
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper seeks to bridge two areas of research in urban studies: studies of the transformation of social reproduction under austerity and the broad literature on urban redevelopment. The approach used in this paper chronicles the relationality between austerity and urban redevelopment agendas in governance, institutions, and people’s day-to-day lives. I explore this relationality in the context of austerity-induced water crisis in the American rustbelt: 117,000 water service disconnection of households with overdue bills in Detroit since 2014. Service disconnections have been used to coerce low-income households into paying bills on time, enabling the water department to pay down its debts, despite outcry about the unaffordability of water rates. Drawing from interviews and participant observation, I argue that dispossession in the realm of social reproduction creates new opportunity structures for redevelopment actors. Particularly, I chronicle the interlocking dispossessive practices of the water, welfare, and property tax regimes in these cities. I find that revanchist efforts to coerce water debt payment lead people to shift their indebtedness the property tax regime, resulting in foreclosure and dispossession of housing. This housing, in turn, is scooped up at little cost by gentrifying redevelopment actors. This research makes the case that the effects of dispossessions in the realm of social reproduction are not limited to the household economies but are significant in broader processes of spatial transformation in today’s cities.

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