Utility shut-offs harm vulnerable Virginians

January 19, 2023 5:30 pm

Electric meters. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

By Rev. Sherman Z. Logan

Virginians will continue to face the threat of utility shut-offs as the height of winter approaches, with low temperatures and severe weather events worsened by the negative impacts of climate change. With Del. Irene Shin introducing House Bill 2283 in this year’s General Assembly session, this is a timely opportunity to codify more protections that ensure Virginians’ access to essential services like gas, water and electricity. 

As the senior minister of First Unitarian Universalist, I have seen how my community suffers from high utility bills and income inequality. I witness families facing the tough choice between either paying for utilities or buying other household essentials like food and medicine. First Unitarian Universalist has previously offered support to members to help pay their utility bills. However, alongside the realities of COVID-19, this limited source has become more taxed as the need for assistance has grown. 

Last year, Virginians endured numerous cases of extreme weather, like dangerously high temperatures causing heat advisories, tornadoes and instances of flooding across the state. Even with increased severe weather, households with vulnerable populations like infants, the elderly and people with disabilities risk losing access to essential utility services such as heat in the middle of winter. Utility shut-offs are an intersectional issue that has historically burdened families with children, the elderly, Black and Brown communities and differently-abled residents. This makes protection to access essential utility services during times of crisis a critical justice issue. 

Virginia currently has among the weakest utility disconnection protections for customers of any state in the South and Southeast. North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama each offer more protection for low-income customers by prohibiting utility disconnections during certain months, during extreme weather or within specified temperature ranges. Establishing protections for some of our most vulnerable neighbors could be the lifesaving solution that would put Virginia on par with neighboring states. Del. Shin’s bill supports low-income Virginians facing utility shut-offs. The bill specifically limits the ability of electric, gas and water utilities to disconnect customers from these essential services during extreme weather events and states of emergency. 

During Virginia’s COVID-19 state of emergency, the State Health Commissioner ordered the city of Petersburg to restore water services that were turned off during the public health crisis. Better utility shut-off policies would have provided additional support to the 730 household accounts disconnected from water services. Research shows that high bills and shut-offs by utilities played a role in putting Black, brown, and Indigenous communities at disproportionate risk of hospitalization and death during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as companies received federal funds and boosted executive compensation. High utility burdens disproportionately impact low-income families. When low-income households defer utility payments to prioritize other household expenses, such as rent or mortgage payments, they can enter a debt accumulation and payment deferral cycle that puts them at an even greater risk of losing their home altogether. 

At a time when many conversations are happening around increased utility rates, it’s important to remember the consequences borne by everyday families because of existing policies. Virginia has the potential to be a climate justice leader in the Southeast region, but to do so, it must address utility shut-offs. Tackling utility shut-offs is vital to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations and fundamental to reducing energy bills and moving into the future’s just, clean energy economy. Virginians from across the commonwealth support protections from essential utility disconnections. Over 100 households and faith communities stand in solidarity with millions of Virginians potentially facing utility shut-offs during the Power-Fast for Justice with Virginia Interfaith Power & Light. 

As people of faith, it is time to act in solidarity with our vulnerable neighbors at risk of utility shut-offs. HB2283 creates greater protections for our neighbors most impacted by high utility bills. The urgency of addressing the everyday kitchen table issues of Virginia families should no longer be denied, especially when so many neighboring states have found common-sense remedies that respect human dignity.

Rev. Sherman Z. Logan is a senior minister at First Unitarian Universalist in Richmond.

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