By Gabriela Sandoval (click here for the pdf)
Kalikhia Miller received the shutoff notice she had been dreading on a cold December day. After years of steady payments she’d had a series of health crises and fallen behind on her PG&E bills. As a resident of Section 8 housing Kalikhia knew that having her service shut off would put her in danger of being evicted as well, since utility service is often a condition of subsidized housing. She had 48 hours to pay $2,280.
Ms. Miller suffers from serious health issues including a heart condition, diabetes and fibromyalgia that contribute to high energy costs and had led to thousands of dollars in utility debt during a period of housing instability. In 2007, she was able to move into highly coveted Section 8 housing and worked out a monthly payment plan with her utility company to square her debt and keep current on her balance. Over the years, she was able to pay off almost $5,000 in arrears.
But when her health started deteriorating, she fell behind on her bills again. Ms. Miller, facing both a shutoff and an eviction, was desperate when she called TURN—The Utility Reform Network—for help.
A year earlier, TURN had learned from one of our community partners, Poverello House, a homeless shelter and housing advocacy organization based in Fresno, CA, that it was now “as important to access a client’s utility bill as it was to have their ID on file.” It turned out that utility debt was often the final barrier to housing people. “You can get every type of service available to help someone get back on their feet and ready to go into transitional or subsidized housing,” said Robert Huerta, Client Services Manager at Poverello House, “but if they owe their utility company $2,000, there’s unfortunately nothing we can do.” This has become an increasingly important issue as evidenced by how many organizations serving the unhoused population in California now include a line item in their organizational budget to enable them to pay off their clients’ utility debt.
In 2017, TURN won a $5 million fund of shareholder money to be used by the large utility companies (Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas, and San Diego Gas and Electric) to pay off the debt of California residents experiencing homelessness for whom utility debt represented the final barrier to accessing subsidized or transitional housing. These grants were also made available to residents of subsidized housing threatened with eviction due to utility debt. Ms. Miller was one of the first recipients of this SHARE Program (Subsidized Housing Assistance Relief for Energy Program).
The SHARE program was one part of a broader strategy to limit utilities’ ability to shut customers off for nonpayment. Alarmed by skyrocketing increases in shutoffs throughout California, in 2016 TURN launched the Power@Home Campaign, a research, education, organizing and policy initiative to advance energy justice. Our research showed that one out of every four California residents was struggling to keep the lights on and energy insecurity was threatening the health and wellbeing of millions of consumers. In 2018, TURN was shocked to discover that one out of every ten customers disconnected by the large electric utility companies is never reconnected and one out of three natural gas customers shut off by Southern California Gas are never reconnected. We believe these utility shutoffs are a hidden driver of housing displacement, forcing vulnerable families from their homes. The data do not tell us what happens to people whose utility service is never reconnected, but community surveys and individual stories relate that many people move, sometimes crowding in with other family members, couch surfing, or end up living on the streets.
Against the backdrop of California’s housing crisis, TURN’s research and discussions with community partners led us to conclude that there is a significant correlation between being able to maintain utility service and being secure in one’s home. The bottom line is that people struggling to pay energy bills and keep the lights on are also likely to be struggling to pay the rent or their mortgage. This is why energy insecurity can be an early indicator of housing insecurity and potential homelessness.
The SHARE Program temporarily addressed a problem for which there is little data. How many unhoused California residents and, indeed, unhoused families and individuals across the country might be housed simply by paying off their utility debt? Here is what we accomplished: Almost 4,000 (3,909) customers were able to access housing or remain housed with support in the form of a grant from the SHARE program. These grants ranged in size from $40 to $7,000 and averaged $640.
All of this cost investors less than $4 million dollars, money we think was well spent in promoting the public good. Because TURN won this one-time fund for a program that was stipulated to last only two years, almost $1 million dollars of the fund was not spent on SHARE and the program ended. We believe SHARE Program data clearly show the significant impact a targeted assistance program can make in the lives of families struggling to access and maintain housing when shareholder funds are earmarked for that purpose.
Our advocacy is not limited to the SHARE program and is ongoing as high rents, COVID, unemployment and business losses further push struggling families in California to the brink.
We have successfully advocated for requirements for utilities to increase enrollment of people eligible for Discount Programs and Medical Baseline—the program that protects medically vulnerable customers from shutoffs. Many people who are eligible for the medical baseline discount because they are dependent on electrically powered equipment or heating or cooling for their health are not enrolled, presumably because they do not know about the program. Our own efforts to increase awareness include a series of informational trainings for healthcare workers and community based organizations whose clients may be eligible.
TURN knows that the bills will come due for the shutoff moratorium that has been in place during COVID. We have promoted an approach for customers in arrears that links utility payment obligations with household income through a Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) as well as through an Arrearage Management Program (AMP). The latter rewards customers for making regular payments by forgiving 1/12 of existing utility debt for every on-time payment over 12 months. We hope to see these become models for resolving post-COVID utility debt nationwide.
TURN is about to turn 50 and universal access to essential services has always been at the core of our mission. Protections like these have been won primarily through regulatory advocacy and in addition to electric and gas service have covered landline phones. As Internet access has become as essential to modern life as heat and light, a challenge we face is how to extend these protections to cell phone and Internet providers who, despite their astronomical profits, only provide unreliable bare-bones service at a low-income discount.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half a million utility customers in California have signed up for utility assistance programs and utility debt has grown exponentially. We have a solid foundation of consumer protections in California and there are a handful of other states working hard to increase energy security. There are important lessons to be learned from these initiatives at the state level that can be built upon for those working at the federal level, as well as those pushing for equitable, universal access to the Internet.
I had the opportunity to check in with Ms. Miller as I wrote this piece. When she called TURN two years ago, she said, “I felt like someone finally listened to me.” I asked her if she had been able to keep up with her bills, which are discounted. “I stay ahead of them now,” she responded.
Gabriela Sandoval (gsandoval@ turn.org) is Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Utility Reform Network in California, and a member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.