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The Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners has adopted a motion directing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to halt the practice of water and electric shutoffs as a debt collection tool. 

Under the new motion, those enrolled in LADWP’s EZ-SAVE program — which offers income-qualified residential customers a discount to help reduce the cost of electricity, water, and sewer service — as well as those enrolled in the Senior Citizen Lifeline Discount Program, will be eligible for shutoff protection. 

The Commissioners’ directive was approved at its Nov. 8 board meeting. The motion also prohibits shutoffs for all customers during extreme weather events, such as extreme heat episodes that can harm public health, safety and welfare.

LADWP has 146,723 customers currently enrolled in its EZ-SAVE discount program and 89,591 customers in its Senior Citizen Lifeline Discount Program who now become eligible for shutoff protection. 

In addition, LADWP promotes and connects eligible customers with federally funded efforts such as the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). 

LADWP is the largest municipally-owned utility serving 1.5 million electric customers and 700,000 water customers. Among the Board’s key priorities is to provide support to residents in Los Angeles’ most income-vulnerable communities who may be struggling to pay utility debts for electricity to light their homes and apartments, afford air conditioning and maintain uninterrupted water service. 

Many residents remain affected by the ongoing economic crisis and climate change challenges wherein they find that costs for goods and services are sharply rising while their incomes do not. LADWP has made a serious commitment to promote equity by helping low-income customers afford essential water and power services, participate in LADWP’s clean energy transformation through the LA100 Equity Strategies initiative, and access customer programs to help them save costs on their monthly bills. 

The Board’s action followed a review of equity-related water and power shutoff patterns conducted by LADWP and documented by the UCLA Luskin Center’s recent research.

“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,” said commission President Cynthia McClain-Hill. “We are acting to follow through on our previous pledge to our customers in most financial need: ‘We’re here to help.’ We intend to work with you to address your needs without adding to your stress and fears that your utility services will be cut off while we help you afford and manage them with our continuing assistance going forward.”

Studies revealed that before, during and after the COVID-19 moratorium, low-income customers paid their utility bills at the same rate or higher than all customers.

LADWP participated in the US Water Alliance’s Preventing Shutoffs for Low-Income Households pilot project in partnership with SCOPE and South LA community members. These results, in addition to research findings by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and UCLA Institute of the Environment, showed that discontinuing water and power of low-income customers as a debt collection tool is not a justified method of recovering the cost of providing service. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the pandemic, access to water and power is a public health necessity and utility shutoffs increase health risks.

LADWP data and community testimonies show that Black, Latinx, and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by high utility burden and therefore face the brunt of utility debt and shutoffs.

While the Board motion will stop the use of utility shutoffs as a debt collection practice for customers enrolled in qualified LADWP assistance programs, the Department was also directed to increase marketing efforts and partnerships with community-based organizations to raise awareness of assistance programs which help customers pay their utility bills.

Customers who would have had their utilities shut off prior to the Board policy will be prioritized for a “Customer Consultation.” The Board also indicated it will consider in the future whether to extend similar shut-off protections to small commercial customers as well customers in the top 20 percent highest scoring census tracts under CalEnviroScreen 4.0.

“Covid changed the shut-off discussion not only in Los Angeles, but nationwide. Our research and data show the importance and need for this type of action. Protection from utility shutoffs for those enrolled in low-income discount programs will help lessen the debt burden for LADWP’s most vulnerable customers,” said Greg Pierce, co-director for UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation.

Our Weekly coverage of local news in Los Angeles County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.

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