What COVID has taught us about reliable energy and healthy homes
This blog is the first in a three-part series written by Schneider colleague Lizzie Avila on the topic of protecting tenants and consumers of utilities before, during and after the pandemic.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has created the conditions for an economic, social and public health crisis unlike any other in the last century, and with it continues to exacerbate the problems caused by a system of public services and of deeply broken housing. The current state of the system is gloomy: the housing sector, from January 2021, estimates between $ 8.4 billion and $ 52.6 billion in rent arrears, and an estimate $ 35-40 billion is owed in utility bills. Blacks, natives, people of color, with already disproportionate energy loads (up to 45% more charge than white households) and housing costs (with over 50% of black households having moderate to severe financial burdens) bear the brunt of these costs, making it not only an affordability issue, but an equity issue as well.
Before the pandemic, utility closures and evictions were a routine response to non-payment by customers and tenants. Some cut and eviction protections included just cause of eviction orders and stabilization of rents for tenants, Where seasonal moratoriums of closure for utility customers. Some states had rent assistance programs before the pandemic that also helped households struggling to pay rent and utilities, albeit with less funding. These protections, however, were only available in certain jurisdictions, and even then, they did not completely prevent disconnections and evictions from utilities and helped keep people at home and connected to energy. According to EvictionLab, there was 898,479 evictions applied nationally in 2016 only. Public Service Reform Network Reports 886,000 California households that suffered utility cuts in 2016 – almost as many closures as there were nationwide evictions, and that’s just one state.
Government assistance to help with payment, like LIHEAP or Housing Choice vouchers, also worked as pre-pandemic interventions. But before COVID-19, LIHEAP only reached around 15% of eligible households and Housing Choice coupons only reached about 24% of eligible households, both because of funding limitations, proving that they are not enough to completely solve the public service cuts and the housing crisis.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, community organizers and policy advocates took action to fight for comprehensive protection for tenants and consumers of public services. NYC Advising Law created a guide that helped tenants form coalitions with their neighbors and organize rent strikes in more than 50 buildings, the Regional tenant organization network in California closed a courthouse in Santa Clara County to protest evictions, and 600 groups– including the NRDC – signed a letter urging President Joe Biden to institute a federal moratorium on shutting down public services on the first day of his term. The result of organizing efforts across the country has been a national moratorium on evictions, 38 moratoria on state evictions and 33 moratoria on shutting down public services. Many of these moratoriums on shutting down state-wide utilities were short-lived or were made voluntary after a few months. As of August 30, 2021, all but 6 states have lifted their moratoria on shutting down public services and all but 5 states have lifted their moratoria on evictions, despite still being in the midst of a pandemic. The federal moratorium on evictions has been officially invalidated by the Supreme Court on the 26th after an attempted extension until October 3. Some states, like new York, again extended their moratoriums on evictions in response to the ruling, although crucial parts of the legislature (like the ability to demonstrate financial hardship via an electronic form instead of submitting evidence to court) were blocked due to the decision.
In addition to federal and state moratoria, an additional $ 50 billion has been allocated to state rent assistance programs in December 2020 and March 2021, designated by the Treasury Department as usable for both rent payment and utilities. The distribution of this aid has been extremely slow, with only $ 5.1 billion distributed to tenants in July 2021, the remainder always in the accounts of the State. Alone 17% of those who requested this help actually received funding, making this program as effective as pre-COVID-19 affordability interventions, despite a significant budget increase. The hesitant and highly critical distribution process has had real consequences for tenants and consumers of utilities, with an estimated 11 million households threatened with eviction and billions of dollars in utility arrears falling to consumers. These consequences disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and Colored (BIPOC) and low-income households. In March 2021, 9% of white tenants were behind on rent, and BIPOC was significantly more affected. with 22% of black tenants, 20% of Latinx tenants and 19% of Asian tenants in arrears in March 2021.
The affordability crisis continues
When the pandemic started, staying home and washing our hands was something we could all do to stay healthy and safe. By creating policies such as moratoriums on evictions and the shutdown of public services during the pandemic with this rationale, governments across the country have proven and admitted that access to public services and housing is a necessary component of the public health. As vaccines continue to be distributed and we move towards a promising end to the pandemic, policymakers have an opportunity to push for a bold legislature that builds on the ideas of these moratoria, according to which the energy and housing are human rights and essential to well-being.
The reality of this energy and housing crisis is that even as closures and moratoria end, the pandemic continues, with current hospitalization rates similar to last winter. The number of households behind on rent and utility payments will only increase. We must pursue actions that immediately protect tenants while simultaneously creating long-term policies to comprehensively respond to the housing crisis and energy justice.
Lizzie Avila is one of the NRDC Summer 2021 Schneider Fellows working with Energy Efficiency for All in the Midwest. She is a rising junior at Stanford University studying Earth Systems and Urban Studies. While at the NRDC, Lizzie worked on COVID-19 arrest and eviction policy monitoring projects, researching the reform of the Public Services Commission, and working on a tariff case with the Missouri EEFA coalition. After college, she hopes to pursue studies in environmental law and work as a litigator in an environmental advocacy group. In her spare time, Lizzie enjoys hiking, reading fantasy novels, cooking and doing crosswords.