NC WARN is among 50 organizations and individuals urging the governor and Utilities Commission to stop evictions & utility shutoffs
Despite last week’s passage of legislation allocating nearly $500 million for emergency rent and utility assistance, hundreds of thousands of struggling families in North Carolina will remain at risk of eviction and disconnection from water and energy service if further action is not taken before the end of the month, advocates said today in separate letters to Gov. Roy Cooper and the NC Utilities Commission. In signing that bill, even the Governor acknowledged that the stipulations tied to the funds by the state legislature, funds which come from last December’s federal COVID relief bill, will further hamstring an already slow process for getting money to the households that need it.
With the end of the federal and state eviction moratoria looming at the end of March, and more than 650,000 North Carolina households still behind on their utility bills, advocates are once again calling on the governor and the NC Utilities Commission to take immediate action to protect residents by instituting a new extended moratorium on evictions and utility disconnections through the end of October.
“With hundreds of thousands of people facing eviction and lacking basic utility services, speed should be the most important factor in implementing assistance. The General Assembly’s move to add new stipulations to assistance was unnecessary and only adds further complexity, creating additional delay in providing desperately needed assistance,” said Pamela Atwood, Director of Housing Policy at the North Carolina Housing Coalition. “As a result, suspending evictions and shutoffs statewide is the only way to allow enough time for the economy to recover, residents to get vaccinated, and the assistance funds to reach those who need them.”
Since early September, renters have, on paper, been protected from eviction under a nationwide moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control. However, legal service providers have reported eviction filings continuing across the state as court clerks, landlords and their attorneys challenged, ignored or found other ways to get around the moratorium.
At the same time, electric, gas and water utilities across the state have been disconnecting service for customers at nearly the same rate as before the pandemic. Reports submitted to the NC Utilities Commission show that since state moratoria on shutoffs expired last summer, utilities have disconnected more than 54,000 residential accounts due to non-payment, which is only 15 percent lower than in the prior year. This is a direct result of utility customers still owing a total of more than $150 million in unpaid utility bills. Additionally, the new emergency assistance funding only covers utilities for renters, while other federal utility assistance funds have been rapidly depleted, leaving lower-income homeowners struggling to afford their bills.
“Setting aside the moral questions involved, the fact is that utilities are shutting off access to water, electricity and heating during an economic and public health crisis, putting millions of people at increased risk of contracting, spreading and possibly even dying from the virus,” said Rory McIlmoil, Senior Energy Analyst for Appalachian Voices. “The governor and Commission can no longer act as if utilities are going to behave any differently and should enact a new moratorium until all available funding gets distributed and this crisis is over.”
The call for a new moratorium was submitted as letters to Governor Cooper and the NC Utilities Commission today and signed by 38 racial justice, housing, labor, health, low-income and environmental advocacy organizations. The letters cite numerous reports that illustrate the depth of the crisis and the severe impact on families struggling to pay their bills, as well as the significant racial disparities when it comes to evictions and utility shutoffs.
“Although we acknowledge the recent release of funding for utility and rental assistance here in North Carolina, we have to remain honest in the fact that these piecemeal solutions are still insufficient in fully protecting North Carolinians, and more specifically, Black, Brown and low-income residents. This funding is not enough to guarantee protections for residents from losing access to their basic needs during a public health crisis,” said Jovita Lee, Senior Environmental Justice Campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. “No household, especially during a time where we are told our safest option is to remain at home, should ever have to choose between paying their rent, keeping the lights on, the broadband they need to continue working or children’s remote learning and putting food on the table.”