In the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jen Chanttanapichete, the organizer of climate justice, fell behind in paying for utilities after losing her contract as a consultant.
“I was credited with car payments and paid all my bills before the pandemic,” Chantratanapichate said, adding that her utility bills had accumulated over the past two years. Even though she’s been working for months, she still doesn’t pay her bills, she said, and owes $ 1,400 to the National Grid for her electricity services and more than $ 700 for gas from Con Edison. Two utilities hold a monopoly in Brooklyn, where she lives.
Similar stories about raising debt for utilities have been reported in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in other parts of Brooklyn, as well as in Astoria and Ozone Park in Queens. But the energy crisis is not limited to New York. In households across the state that receive electricity from utilities, over the winter indebtedness for utilities is increasing. Now that the weather is warming, households in some counties have begun to experience power outages, and supporters fear that many more await them.
Exacerbated by the pandemic, in utility debt crisis has had a disproportionate impact on some of the most vulnerable populations, including low-income families and undocumented families. Due to the fact that more and more people stay at home, regardless of whether they are unemployed or working remotely, utility consumption has increased and people are lagging behind in payment. Earlier this year, utility bills also increased by 200-300 percent.
Utilities attribute rising energy prices, especially to rising natural gas prices, and insist they are doing everything in their power to control costs and maintain conservation and renewable energy. But activists such as Chantratanapichata, who coincidentally lives a few blocks from where National Grid is building a new expensive gas pipeline, on which she and other activists say it is not needed and not needed, in the area are already disproportionate aggravated by pollution, it is said that if climate change is not enough to force utilities to move to lower renewable energy costs, there must be spiraling debt.
In March, New York City’s debt for utilities exceeded $ 2.1 billion, and it is still growing, and utilities are seeing an upward trend in every part of the state. According to WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an organization whose mission is to combat racism in the environment and create healthy communities for people of color, 13 percent of all residential households – about 1,137,000 people – have 60 days in arrears on utilities. . an average of $ 1,427.71 in debt. The level of indebtedness is even higher for Con Ed customers, averaging about $ 2,085 per household / customer.
In early 2022, Democratic Senator Kevin S. Parker sponsored bill that will extend the existing moratorium on disconnection of utilities by amending the law on utilities. The bill will be extended until June 30 protection against disconnection of residential customers and small businesses experiencing financial difficulties due to the pandemic.
“The bill is designed to create a negotiating space for the most vulnerable,” said Richard Berkeley, executive director of the Public Law Project (PULP). But some utilities are moving faster to discontinue services. “Customers are six times more likely to face disconnection this year.”
More than 471,629 disconnection reports were sent out in April 2022 to residential customers across New York State, with Orange and Rockland counties leading, and there were 79 disconnections this month. For commercial customers in total, there were more than 77,651 disconnection notifications, with almost 2,544 already executed. The National Network (KEDLI) had the highest number of service terminations, 882, followed by Con Edison with 831 completion and the National Grid (KEDNY) with 310. Housing terminations in March were 131 and commercial – 1688.
Proponents fear that if other utilities in the state are shut down in the coming days, some residents will not have the air conditioning needed to prevent the summer heat, threatening the lives of some vulnerable people in society. .
“Most people who die from the heat in the summer are the elderly or children,” said Jasmine Graham, energy justice policy manager at WE ACT Environmental Justice. “Shutdown in summer is as bad as in winter.”
In November 2021, the Biden-Harris administration added $ 4.5 billion to the budget of the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to help families with utility bills. Money under the American Rescue Plan is available until September 2022. The state of New York also offers help to people who need help with energy resources. Office of Temporary Assistance and Disability Assistance (OTDA) highlights several benefits which can be claimed by families and low-income families.
For example, depending on income, household size and heating source, households with a person under the age of 6 or over the age of 60 may apply for HEAP assistance to cover utility bills by paying them directly to the seller. . HEAP also has emergency assistance for situations where residents experience disconnection or have received disconnection reports. The program provides for the repair or replacement of furnaces, boilers and other equipment. The New York Waverly Labor Center, which is part of the Department of Social Services, said people must apply for HEAP assistance by April 29. On May 2, assistance became available to cool homes in the summer.
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April 21 White House announced that it adds another $ 385 million to the LIHEAP program to help households with electricity needs for the home, resulting in total program funding of $ 8.3 billion. The allocation is the largest in one year since the program was founded in 1981. New York’s share of the additional cash is more than $ 36 million, bringing the state’s total funding to more than $ 918 million.
But many of these grant programs exclude eligible groups. HEAP, for example, requires recipients to be U.S. citizens or qualified foreigners, making it virtually impossible for undocumented families to access. Lawyers say it could create a debt cycle in generations.
Bureaucracy and long delays are also problems in government programs. Chantratanapichete said she applied for HEAP in early January through the program program, but the local HEAP office said it never received her application. She then sent it through the post office, after which she was told to contact the office again in late May or early June.
In a move that is likely to drag more people into debt on their utility bills, Con Edison has proposed further rate increases for New York City customers. The company is asking for $ 1.2 billion in electricity revenue and $ 500 million in gas revenue, which is twice as much as 2019. That would mean a colossal 11.2 percent increase in electricity bills and an 18.2 percent increase in gas bills for the average New Yorker.
At last month’s public hearing, consumer advocates and elected officials blamed Con Edison’s proposed three-figure rate increase and called on Gov. Katie Hochul and the New York State Civil Service Commission (PSC) to approve a plan to reduce bills for New Yorkers and level the playing field. the laws of New York and the state.
“These increased utility costs are hurting thousands of New Yorkers,” wrote Democratic Sen. Michael Janaris, the Senate’s deputy majority leader. February letter chairman of the commission Rory M. Christian. “The PBC must sort this out and do it in a hurry.”
The need for assistance and assistance to the most vulnerable groups is likely to persist. According to the American Council on Energy Efficiency, at least 25 percent of low-income families in New York have high energy loadmore than 17 percent of their income goes to their energy costs, which is six times the average energy load for city residents.
Proponents of energy justice sought $ 500 million in assistance from the state budget, passed on April 9, but the legislature approved only $ 250 million to repay the debt for utilities. Defenders said they believed consumer debt for utilities should be eliminated and paid for by shareholder profits and public funds. And they continue to push for a shift to renewable energy.
“We need a Civil Service Commission to address the energy debt crisis and climate crises, forcing utilities and their shareholders to pay their fair share,” said Avni Provin, deputy director of the Alliance’s policy for the green economy, a security and affordability organization. in New York State. “We also need to start taking concrete steps towards the state’s renewable energy system.”