Advocates push Pa. to extend utility shutoff moratorium again

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Pennsylvania’s moratorium on utility shutoffs for low-income residents will expire at the end of March.

More than 847,000 residents would have been left without utilities at the end of December if it wasn’t for the moratorium, said Liz Marx, executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project (PULP).

“Every year, we have tens of thousands of people who are shut off come the end of the winter moratorium. This year, that number is worse, and it’s exacerbated by the pandemic, and the disparity of race that we see are all the more pronounced,” she explained.

Efforts are underway to extend the March 31 deadline. PULP and dozens of other organizations united to send a letter to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, calling for an extension of the moratorium.

A portion of the letter reads:

The solution to this unprecedented accrual of debt is not to turn off service – forcing people from their homes. Such a result is unconscionable, and will only exacerbate the current public health crisis, disproportionately affect Black and Latinx neighborhoods and compounding deep economic and racial inequities laid bare throughout the pandemic. We urge the Commission to ensure that all consumers have access to flexible payment options – including comprehensive arrearage management and debt forgiveness programming – to help stabilize struggling families and eliminate the lingering threat of utility termination. 

Marx said covering utilities is the linchpin that’s keeping people in their homes.

“If we start terminating before that funding becomes available, then we’ve destabilized the housing,” she said. “The other thing that happens when you are terminated is, you can’t stay in your home any longer — especially water service, where you can’t flush your toilet.”

The peak heating season is January through March, and according to Marx, some shutoff notifications have already gone out. In the meantime, low-income residents are urged to sign up for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

Marx added that the newly created Emergency Rental Assistance Program will let counties provide millions in rent and utility relief across the state, allowing renters to remain in their homes. However, she said it is going to take time before the program is up and running in all 67 counties.

According to a recent study by Duke University, utility moratoriums across the nation have reduced COVID-19 infections by 4.4% and mortality rates by 7.4%.