L.A. to end water and power shutoffs for low-income customers

Low-income residents, seniors and other eligible customers of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy will no longer face shutdowns if they can’t pay their utility bills, the agency announced Wednesday.

Under a motion unanimously approved by the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, the DWP must end the practice of water and power shutdowns as a debt collection tool for residents of the EZ-SAVE program, which offers rebates to Income-Eligible Residents , as well as those living on Senior Citizen Lifeline Discount Program are enrolled.

The motion also bans shutdowns for all customers during extreme weather events such as heat waves, the agency said. Approximately 147,000 customers are registered with EZ-SAVE and 90,000 with the senior program.

“The department has learned a lot from COVID and from the series of events and ongoing calls for justice,” said Commission President Cynthia McClain-Hill. “And based on what we’ve learned, we think it’s critical that we take the steps necessary to protect and support all of our residents, including those who are struggling to earn an income, and steps that are specific are and contribute to their quality life.”

The agency will work with customers who can’t pay their bills to provide information about discounts, payment plans and other financial assistance options, as well as strategies to reduce their water and electricity use, she said.

The directive comes as millions of Californians struggle to pay water and electric bills, which have been fueled by drought and extreme heat, as well as economic challenges exacerbated by inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent report by advocacy group RePower LA, utility debt to DWP customers increased from $85.6 million in February 2020 to $226.9 million in August.

Additionally, low-income and communities of color are disproportionately affected by debt and business closures, according to DWP data and research from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. This includes areas like South LA, East Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

The motion is “a strong step forward in ensuring that low-income communities of color have basic access to water and electricity,” RePower LA director Victor Sanchez said in a statement.

“More needs to be done to ensure utilities remain affordable, but stopping the shutdowns for our most economically vulnerable ratepayers prevents a mother from having to choose between rent, transportation, or her energy bill,” Sanchez said. “We cannot ignore these real-world decisions that community members are still making amid rising utility debt.”

Although California passed its Human Rights to Water Act in 2012 — which declares that all residents have a right to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water — nearly a million residents still lack access to such supplies, according to state data.

McClain-Hill said shutdowns had been a “normal part” of the department’s practice in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the DWP to enact a moratorium on shutdowns. According to DWP, between January 2017 and January 2020, more than 77,000 private customers were switched off at least once. Of these, around 69% were shut off at least once for electricity, 15% at least once for water, and 16% at least once for both water and electricity.

The data also shows that lower-income communities were more likely to be affected by closures, and Black and Hispanic-majority communities were twice as likely to be affected by closure than other groups. Additionally, the duration of shutdowns was generally longer for stressed communities.

Greg Pierce, co-director of UCLA’s Luskin Center, said in a statement that the research and data “show the importance and necessity of these types of actions.”

“Protection against supply shutdowns for those participating in low-income rebate programs will help ease the debt burden for LADWP’s most vulnerable customers,” he said.

The board also reviewed UCLA findings on DWP shutdown patterns, which found that low-income customers paid their utility bills at the same rate or higher than all customers before, during and after COVID-19 shutdown moratoriums.

The finding removes any concern that people are exploiting the system, McClain-Hill said.

“The fact that these customers — when they have the opportunity, when they can — pay up really takes away from the power of this argument, in my view,” she said, “and tells us that their failure to pay is not a lack of responsibility.” . … It is the result of their actual inability to foot the bill.”

The motion also directs the DWP to increase efforts to improve affordability, ensure utility debt relief, and increase awareness and enrollment in the EZ-SAVE and senior citizen programs, among other measures. And while the agency can no longer shut down services as a form of debt collection, it can still shut them down in cases of illegal activity or theft, officials said.

DWP had previously shared plans to resume shutdowns for non-discounted residential customers in May 2023 and discounted residential customers in September 2023, the commission said.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-11-16/l-a-to-end-water-and-power-shutoffs-for-low-income-customers-who-cant-pay L.A. to end water and power shutoffs for low-income customers

Alley Einstein

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