More reasons poor people end up with high utility bills
Aug 22, 2019 | 12:41 PM
In their Baltimore Sun op-ed (“Energy inefficiency disproportionately hurts low-income Baltimoreans," Aug. 19), Ruth Ann Norton and Lucy LaFlamme cite several startling statistics and offer excellent reasons for helping low-income Marylanders with their energy burdens. I could not agree more with their basic premise that “A 1% low-income energy-savings goal can help Baltimore and all of Maryland.”
Unfortunately, they did not mention three items that contribute to those families’ energy burdens and must be considered by everyone planning to meet that 1% goal.
First, Maryland’s low-income households paying 13% of their income for energy costs cannot be compared to the national average of 8%. Rather, the comparison needs to be with states that are similarly located geographically. Maryland is a “dual-season” state when it comes to utility bills. That means we have to deal with both high heating and high cooling costs. I have attended national energy conferences where utility assistance providers talk about working with client bills of $250. In Maryland, bills of $2,500 or more are common.
Second, is the question of why utility companies allow bills to get that high. Most people probably assume that if they don’t pay their bill for a month or two, they will get a couple of warnings and then their service will be turned off. For those who have a decent payment history that may very well be the case. I personally know someone with a perfect payment history who received a turn off notice when he was a couple of cents short of the full payment amount.
People with not-so-good payment histories though are usually carried for months and even years. You need to talk to the utilities themselves to get their perspective on why that happens. I am not an accountant and only have a vague surface understanding of utility accounting practices, but my speculation has long been that the companies must benefit by having those debts on their books. Perhaps they know they will collect a certain percentage of the money owed and the losses they incur will be made up in the long run by rate hikes approved by the Public Service Commission. By the way, collecting that certain percentage is most often accomplished with a mix of federal, state, local and/or private funds combined with a relatively small amount from the family.
Third, and the most critically important item, is the poor condition of the housing low income people live in. This the authors did not touch. They mention weatherization and cite the fact that “a mere 9% of eligible low-income Marylanders have received the weatherization assistance they need.” That low participation rate is largely due to the fact that low income people tend to live in poor quality housing. Weatherization regulations preclude providing weatherization services (i.e., major energy efficiency upgrades) where the building envelope itself does not meet requirements. It is logical. Why provide the energy upgrades when there is a hole in the roof? In fact, each year there is weatherization money that goes unspent because the providers cannot find enough eligible homes to work on. If we truly want to reach, or better yet exceed, that 1% mark, funding must also be found to improve the building in which low income people live.
There are other challenges to getting weatherization assistance, particularly for renters. However, until governments and private sources decide to improve the housing stock itself in a major way and update the regulations and funding to account for current circumstances, weatherization and small-scope energy retrofits will remain useful, albeit incomplete, solutions for energy efficiency.
Again, I applaud the authors for pointing out a serious problem and supporting an achievable goal. However, they and other planners, leaders and citizens must recognize that energy poverty is just a symptom of greater needs. Tackling the utility bill issue can only be one arrow in the quiver. We all need to understand the depth and entrenchment of what it means to be poor and come up with workable, holistic solutions that maintain the dignity of people in need and improves the overall quality of their lives. Charm City, Maryland and the whole country, all vibrant and proud, need to find those solutions.