Low-income residents, senior citizens and other eligible customers of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power will no longer face shutoffs if they are unable to pay their utility bills, the agency announced Wednesday.
Under a motion adopted unanimously by the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, the DWP must halt the practice of water and power shutoffs as a debt collection tool for residents enrolled in its EZ-SAVE program, which offers discounts for income-qualified residents , as well as those enrolled in the Senior Citizen Lifeline Discount Program.
The motion also prohibits shutoffs for all customers during extreme weather events such as heat waves, the agency said. About 147,000 customers are enrolled in EZ-SAVE and 90,000 in the senior citizen program.
“It can be difficult enough to struggle to survive the economic disruption, including job loss, caused by a global pandemic and then face extreme heat or the upcoming bitter cold without essential utilities that are directly tied to your quality of life, and that, of course includes water,” Commission President Cynthia McClain-Hill said in a statement. “We are acting to follow through on our previous pledge to our customers in most financial need: ‘We’re here to help.'”
The agency will work with customers who cannot pay their bills to provide information about discounts, payment plans and other means of financial assistance, officials said.
The directive comes as millions of Californians struggled to pay water and electric bills that have been driven ever higher by drought and extreme heat, as well as economic challenges exacerbated by inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Utility debt among DWP customers soared from $85.6 million in February 2020 to $226.9 million as of August, according to a recent report from advocacy group RePower LA.
What’s more, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by utility debt and shutoffs, according to DWP data and research from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. That includes areas such as South LA, East Los Angeles and portions of the San Fernando Valley.
The motion is “a strong step forward in ensuring there is basic access to water and power for low income communities of color,” RePower LA director Victor Sanchez said in a statement.
“There is still more work to be done to make sure utilities remain affordable, but stopping shut offs for our most economically vulnerable ratepayers prevents a mother from having to choose between rent, transportation or her energy bill,” Sanchez said. “We can’t ignore these real-world choices community members are still making in the face of mounting utility debt.”
Though California adopted its Human Right to Water Act in 2012 — which declares that all residents have a right to clean, safe and affordable drinking water — nearly a million residents still lack access to such supplies, according to state data.
The board also reviewed UCLA findings on DWP shutoff patterns, which found that low-income customers paid their utility bills at the same rate or higher than all customers before, during and after COVID-19 shutoff moratoriums.
The finding “completely obliterates” any concerns about people taking advantage of the system, McClain-Hill said during the board meeting.
“People could get away with not paying their utility bills during the COVID moratorium, and they did anyway,” she said. “It’s not that they weren’t paying because they could get away with it — they weren’t paying because they couldn’t afford it.”
The motion also directs the DWP to ramp up efforts to improve affordability, secure utility debt relief and increase awareness of and enrollment in the EZ-SAVE and senior citizen programs, among other actions. And while the agency can no longer shut off services as a form of debt collection, it may still shut them off in instances of illegal activity or theft, officials said.
The DWP had previously shared plans to restart shutoffs for non-discounted residential customers in May 2023 and discounted residential customers in September 2023, according to the commission.