Suspend Shutoffs of Essential Utility Services in Crisis

As the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic grows, we support calls for utility shutoff moratoriums to protect our most vulnerable communities.
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As the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic grows, we support calls for utility shutoff moratoriums to protect our most vulnerable communities.

As the number of confirmed cases grows, the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will be felt across nearly every aspect of our lives. In a matter of weeks, it has become a global threat, altering the lives and livelihoods of millions.

In this moment when people need to be at home, as the public health crisis demands, the most important protections guarding us against infection include having home energy for regulating temperature, cooking, and keeping food and medicines secure, as well as having safe running water for washing hands and household cleaning and hygiene.

As with any severe emergency or disaster, the coronavirus exposes the many cracks and injustices pushing vulnerable individuals and households deeper into crisis. When assessing the influence and impact of the coronavirus, we quickly see that it is more than a public health issue, it is also a work, energy, water, health, and housing equity issue.

While the health risk posed by the coronavirus increases, our strategies to keep us safe must not undermine people’s ability to have uninterrupted, critical home services such as energy, water, and telecommunications. Most importantly, we must not subject people to the threat of eviction during a health and economic crisis.

Evictions are not the only concern for many residents at this unprecedented time. For the service economy, a major concern is when they will be able to make ends meet to cover impending bills due to “shelter in place” and curfew mandates. These public health decisions, while necessary, threaten entire sectors of the workforce that should not be penalized financially when conditions impede them from making a living.

Utility services are a key component in allowing people to maintain safe, healthy homes. Many utilities have voluntarily suspended service shutoffs, while some have not or have been unclear on their policy. Because of this, advocates and consumers have called upon utilities across the nation to cease all potential service shutoffs during this pandemic. NRDC supports these calls for a moratorium on shutoffs, particularly for home energy and water services. In addition, we support calls for measures that ensure people won't get burdened with unmanageable utility bill arrears after the immediate crisis passes and normal billing cycles return.

We urge Congress, regulatory agencies, and governors to step in where necessary and take action to ensure all customers and the workers who serve them are protected. Importantly, at the state level, governors have broader authority than utility commissions because most water utilities are not subject to commission jurisdiction; governors should use that authority through executive orders or other appropriate means.

No one, regardless of race, gender, income, or geographic location should go without the needs of utility and housing services during the time of a global pandemic. For many families, the threat of shutoffs due to high home energy costs was already a reality: one in three American households are “energy insecure” and face extreme difficulty in paying their utility bills and/or maintaining adequate heating and cooling in their homes, as stated in an analysis done by the U.S. Energy Information Administration: Residential Energy Consumption Survey. This pandemic exacerbates that vulnerability.

A similar affordability crisis is impacting access to clean water. Residential water rates have increased at three times the rate of inflation over the last decade. Many low-income households struggle to pay water bills and are subject to shutoffs and tax liens, which can lead to loss of housing and even loss of child custody. And a recent report by the US Water Alliance found that “more than two million people in the U.S. live without running water or modern plumbing.”

All of these issues add up to placing the stability of housing at risk at a time when homelessness greatly increases both the risk of contagion and the difficulties of containing the pandemic. To avoid setting off a potential viral bomb among a potentially larger homeless population, many cities have already begun to enact moratoriums or greatly restrict evictions while the nation grapples with this crisis.

Advocates in cities such as Los Angeles are calling for “....a sweeping moratorium against the eviction of any tenant in Los Angeles. This moratorium must have universal application. Requiring proof of a direct causal effect of COVID-19 may exclude individuals indirectly affected by the secondary and tertiary economic effects of the health crisis. For instance, workers who cannot find jobs due to the economic downturn may not be able to prove a causal connection—yet that does not change the fact that they cannot afford to pay their rent.”

At the federal level, we joined with the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign to urge members of Congress to include emergency housing assistance funds in federal COVID-19 relief packages.

Solutions to this crisis must not further exacerbate existing inequities or place the burden of our nation’s response on those who can least afford to absorb them. We must act with more solidarity toward one another. Rather than social isolation, we must think of our shared responsibility for community care. That care extends to supporting the ability of individuals and families to safely shelter in place to avoid further spreading of this disease. 

That is why we strongly support calls for utility shutoff moratoriums—with clear communication to all customers—to protect our most vulnerable communities. And that’s just the first crucial step we must take. There may be many customers who already require service reconnections. We call on governors to use their emergency powers (particularly with water utilities) to require “safe reconnections” of all people who were previously connected to a public water system and to establish guidelines defining safe reconnection procedures—including avoidance of microbial, chemical and structural damage risks in the distribution system and premise plumbing, and protections for the health of utility workers (such as training, personal protective equipment, and careful monitoring of ongoing working conditions).

Federal, state, and local policy makers should work with customers, regulators, utilities, municipalities, building owners, and advocates to work together. These actors must come together to create policies that provide clarity and reliable expectations to ensure the process of relief and recovery from this crisis is communicated effectively to impacted households. To view a list of utilities, states, and municipalities that have enacted moratoriums on utility shutoffs and evictions, see this database compiled by Energy Efficiency for All.

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