In the midst of cradling her newborn son, Michael Lundy mentally prepares to leave her Detroit home once again.
Her debt has grown throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and she recently received a shutoff notice from the power company that she owns $2,400.
As well as taking care of her daughter, she is also trying to stay afloat after being out of work for so long.
When the utility company cut off her power back in September, she was forced to stay with her family until she could pay off part of her debt. Today, the power company have threatened to do the same again now.
“It’s frightening,” Lundy admitted.
“I don’t want to be nowhere else but home. I want my kids nowhere else but home… But if it happens, it’s really out of my control.”
Utility debt has been piling up for thousands of Americans during the pandemic.
According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, households now owe power companies approximately $20 billion, an increase of 67% from last year. Earlier, the debt reached more than $30 billion at the height of the pandemic.
The Biden administration had urged utility companies to stop any power shutoffs this winter in November.
As part of the American rescue plan, Biden said, the government doubled funding for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which will help low incomes households to pay utility bills.
Activists for energy justice, however, see LIHEAP as a temporary fix on a broader problem.
Poorly insulated and older homes, especially in Black and brown communities, make low-income families pay more for power and heat.
“The long-term fix they need is money to make their homes’ energy efficient,” Jean Su, director of energy justice and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, explains.
“Right now, they’re losing so much money paying for a house that was poorly built.”
The US Department of Health and Human Services shows that only 17% of households who qualify actually received LIHEAP benefits.
“There are real barriers in folks even knowing what LIHEAP means,” Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition Executive Director Jamesa Johnson Greer said.
“With folks having aging homes, there’s a possibility that they may not even qualify. They may have to invest $10,000 in roof repairs.”
According to a Massachusetts study, 30% more households are behind on their utility bills by at least 90 days.
32 states issued emergency moratoriums last year to prevent companies from cutting off power to people. However, most of them have now expired. As a result, Shutoffs are on the rise.
Almost 1 million households in 17 states that provided shutoff data experienced power outages in a 12-month period, a study by the Center for Biological Diversity found.
“We think the real number [of shutoffs] should be around 3.4 million households,” said the study author Su, pointing out that the US Census Bureau estimates 1.2 million households nationwide were shut off in 2017.
“I think that’s totally unprecedented.”
The CARES Act, which totaled $1.25 billion, was a bailout package for the companies they evaluated during those pandemic shutoffs.
It would have cost eight percent of that total to bail out those 1 million customers, Su told.
“It would have been a drop in the bucket for them to have kept the power on,” Su said.
Possibly saving lives.
As a matter of fact, during the first phase of the pandemic, a moratorium on utility shutoffs would have reduced Covid-19 infections by 8.3% and deaths by 14.8%, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
A Dramatic Rise in Energy Costs
Upon receiving a shut-off notice from the city, Kellela Martin, a Detroit mother of three, rushed to pay off her $179 bill.
“I’ve been shut off for less. I’ve been shut off for 23 cents” Martin said, adding that her family had to move into a mosque after one disconnection. “It’s stressful. You feel like there’s nothing you can do.”
Due to inflation and supply problems, energy costs are now skyrocketing. This winter, heating costs are expected to rise by close to 30%.
As part of the Biden administration, 50 million barrels of oil were released from the strategic petroleum reserve, with the hope of bringing down oil prices, but the President acknowledged this would take time.
Kallela Martin told CNN, “It’s stressful. You feel like there’s nothing you can do.”.
“I think we’re going to see another huge tsunami of utility shutoffs,” Su stated.
“Winter moratoria are just going to kick the can down a couple of months.”
Due to the Infrastructure Bill, an additional $3.5 billion will be allocated to the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program to improve homes and lessen energy costs.
Close to 300 homes in Detroit are weatherized every year by the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency.
According to the agency, costs are estimated at $7,600 per home, but they pay for themselves over time.
“We see about a 20% reduction in the heating bill,” according to Patrick Gubery, assistant director of the Wayne Metro Healthy Homes.
“A home should not be a cause of a crisis for a family, we want a home to be nurturing. And a nurturing home has to have an affordable energy bill.”
Rather than worrying about her home in the long term, Michael Lundy is concerned about her home in the short term.
According to her, Her family would be ruined if heating costs spiked this winter.
Lundy disclosed that her latest shutoff notice prompted her to apply for assistance.
She should find out in the coming days whether she’ll be able to get help or if she’ll have to leave again.
“It’s a lot to think of what’s going to happen or how I’m going to do this,” Lundy stated.