Thousands of utility customers have had their power and water cut off in and around Louisville since June, and tens of thousands more are behind on their payments and at risk of losing utilities.
This is the first wave of utility shut-offs in Louisville since the state’s moratorium expired.
The city’s COVID-19 Utility Relief Fund has been spent. City and state officials have pledged millions more in eviction and utility relief, but that money has not yet been made available to people in need. There are still at least two programs that can offer limited help, though housing advocates question whether it will be sufficient to meet the need without additional funds.
Mayor Greg Fischer said the relief the city has offered so far helped to limit the downward spiral of utility cutoffs and evictions. He said his office would “look into” any unnecessary bureaucracy that may be slowing additional aid from reaching families in need.
“Because if your utilities are cut off, you don’t care about that,” he said. “It needs to be taken care of now.”
In the last two months, Louisville Gas and Electric and Louisville Water company have begun to disconnect past-due customers.
The immediate impacts are obvious: it’s easy to imagine how difficult life becomes without power or water. But people who lose their utilities are also at increased risk of eviction, and evictions are already expected to increase when a federal moratorium ends July 31, 2021.
Louisville is also in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Ask the city’s director of housing and she will quote you the exact number of units the city needs: 30,412.
“Obviously, [utility disconnects] could lead to eviction by your landlord and that’s the worst part of it,” said Marilyn Harris. “You have your utilities disconnected now, you don’t have a refrigerator to keep your food, you can’t take a hot bath. I mean, it’s just such a basic human need.”
- Louisville Gas and Electric has disconnected around 3,600 households in the last month and more than 20,000 people are eligible for disconnection. And the average residential customer behind on their bills owes about $625.
- Louisville Water Company has disconnected around 100 households since the city-owned utility resumed disconnections this month. Around 12,000 Louisville Water customers are past due on their payments. Customers late on their bills owe an average of $700.
Losing the lights
Cassandra Miller with Louisville’s Office of Resilience and Community Services says more assistance funding has passed through her department than at any other time in her 20-plus years working for the city. And the need is still tremendous.
“We are still seeing extremely high utility bills,” Miller said. “People everyday are still knocking on our doors looking for utility assistance.”
The office, working with the Association Of Community Ministries, have helped tens of thousands of families and have paid out millions of dollars in relief. Many of those who have asked for help are people who have not traditionally needed assistance and are now looking for ways to make ends meet.
“They tell you, ‘I’ve never had to do this before,’ and it’s a pride thing,” Miller said.
Miller says oftentimes it’s just one lost job or one unexpected bill that snowballs into a full blown financial crisis. Before they know it, they’re picking and choosing which bills to pay.
And things get much more complicated once the lights, or the water, are shut off.
LG&E customers have to pay back the full amount before the power company will turn back on the electricity and gas, even if they’ve moved. Louisville Water customers need to come up with either $500 or one third of the payment owed to resume service.
When people heard that disconnects we’re resuming, Louisville’s Office of Resilience saw a surge in people asking for help.
“It just increased everybody’s anxiety around that and so we had just a huge, huge [number of] requests at the same time,” Miller said. “So the need is still great, the good news is we still have money available that we will be able to help people with.”
This week, the Office of Resilience and Community Services began accepting applications for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Fund summer cooling program, or LIHEAP.
LIHEAP is a federal program that helps people cover the cost of their electricity and gas bills.
It’s existed for years, but the government expanded it mid-pandemic. Right now people can receive a one-time subsidy between $100 and $400, or a crisis benefit of up to $600 depending on eligibility.
“A lot of times we get people that are working that they don’t know they could qualify for, and the income guidelines are pretty high right now, and that’s one of the blessings,” said Adam Sajko with the Office of Resilience.
The first time Ty Biengardo applied for assistance during the pandemic was after she’d been laid off from her job on the assembly line at the Ford Truck Plant. She was turned down for the program because she made too much money on unemployment.
Eventually she was rehired by Ford only to be laid off again because of a pandemic-related chip shortage at the plant. Biengardo has three kids, and a working husband, but she was still coming up short. She applied again, and this time, LIHEAP covered her energy bill.
“I think it’s a great thing that we need to talk about. Especially when you’re not able to get any other type of assistance,” Biengardo said. “When you are able to get approved for something, it’s kind of neat when you do.”
People can sign up for LIHEAP assistance at the Louisville Metro Office of Resilience website.
For assistance paying water bills, Louisville Water and Metropolitan Sewer District customers can receive up to $250 on past-due balances through this website. A spokesperson for Louisville Water company said it has already sent $4 million in relief to nearly 12,000 customers.
Both utilities encourage past-due customers to work out a payment plan with the companies, though missing even one payment can lead to a disconnection.
More money may soon be on its way. Mayor Fischer has proposed another $5 million in utility assistance through the American Rescue Plan.
Gov. Andy Beshear presented the city of Louisville with an oversized $27 million check for rent and utility assistance back in June, but officials say the city has not yet been able to access those funds. It’s also not clear how much of that funding will go toward utility vs. rental assistance.
Fischer said anything preventing funding from reaching people in need is unacceptable. He hopes that residents who’ve had their utilities disconnected have done everything possible to remedy their situation and said the city will do the same.
“We’ll look into that immediately to see if that can be fixed in any kind of way, if it is possible, but we clearly want people’s utilities to be kept on,” Fischer said.