By Gabe Cohen, CNN
As Michael Lundy cradles her newborn son, she’s mentally preparing to pack up and leave her Detroit home again.
She just got a shutoff notice from the power company, owes more than $2,400 and her debt has grown throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. And she’s been trying to stay afloat after being out of work while also taking care of her 11-year-old daughter.
In September, the utility company cut her power until she paid a portion of her debt, forcing her to leave home and stay with family. Now, the company is threatening to do it again.
“It’s frightening,” Lundy said. “I don’t want to be nowhere else but home. I don’t want my kids nowhere else but home… But if it happens, it’s really out of my control.”
Thousands of Americans have been racking up utility debt during the pandemic. Families now owe power companies close to $20 billion, up 67% from the average year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. At the peak of the pandemic, that debt ballooned to more than $30 billion.
In November, the Biden administration called on more utility companies to prevent shutoffs this winter, and stressed that the American rescue plan, signed in March, doubled funding for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which helps families pay utility bills.
But energy equity activists call LIHEAP a “band aid” on a deeper problem. Low-income families, particularly in Black and brown communities, often pay more for power and heat, with homes that are older and poorly insulated.
“The long-term fix they need is money to make their homes energy efficient,” said Jean Su, the energy justice director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Right now, they’re losing so much money paying for a house that was poorly built.”
Only 17% of eligible households actually receive LIHEAP benefits, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
“There are real barriers in folks even knowing what LIHEAP means,” Jamesa Johnson Greer, Executive Director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition said. “With folks having aging homes, there’s a possibility that they may not even qualify. They may have to invest $10,000 in roof repairs.”
A study in Massachusetts found 30% more families are now at least 90 days behind on their utility bills.
Last year, at least 32 states issued emergency moratoria to prevent companies from cutting people’s power, but nearly all have expired. And shutoffs have surged.
A study by the Center for Biological Diversity found close to 1 million households had their power cut over a 12-month span, and that only includes the 17 states that provided shutoff data. Many states do not track those numbers.
“We think the real number [of shutoffs] should be around 3.4 million households,” said Su, who authored the study, adding that the US Census Bureau estimated 1.2 million household shutoffs nationwide in 2017. “I think that’s totally unprecedented.”
Her study found that during those pandemic shutoffs, the companies they reviewed received a federal bailout from the CARES Act, which totaled $1.25 billion. Bailing out those 1 million customers, Su says, would have cost 8 percent of that total.
“It would have been a drop in the bucket for them to have kept the power on,” Su said.
And it may have saved lives. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that a national moratorium on utility shutoffs early in the pandemic would have reduced Covid-19 infections by 8.% and deaths by 14.8%.
Energy bills are skyrocketing
Kallela Martin, a mother of three in Detroit, rushed to pay off her $179 bill after receiving a shutoff notice.
“I’ve been shut off for less. I’ve been shut off for 23 cents” Martin said, adding that her family had to move into a mosque after one disconnection. “It’s stressful. You feel like there’s nothing you can do.”
To make matters worse, energy bills are now skyrocketing, with heating costs expected to rise close to 30% this winter due to inflation and supply problems. The Biden administration authorized the release of 50 million barrels of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve, hoping to bring those prices down, but the President acknowledged it will take time.
Most states have a shutoff moratorium during winter, but several don’t. And even protected families can fall through the cracks or at least accumulate debt, which isn’t forgiven when the moratoria end.
“I think we’re going to see another huge tsunami of utility shutoffs,” Su said. “Winter moratoria are just going to kick the can down a couple months.”
As part of the infrastructure bill, the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program will receive an additional $3.5 billion to update homes and reduce energy costs for 700 thousand low-income households.
The Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency weatherizes close to 300 homes in the Detroit area every year. They say the average cost is $7,600 per home, but it pays for itself in the long run.
“We see about a 20% reduction in the heating bill,” Patrick Gubery, Wayne Metro’s Assistant Director of Healthy Homes, said. “A home should not be a cause of a crisis for a family, we want a home to be nurturing. And a nurturing home has to have an affordable energy bill.”
Michael Lundy is more worried about her home in the short term. She says a spike in heating costs this winter would be a “disaster” for her family.
She just applied for assistance after getting her latest shutoff notice. She should know in the coming days if she’ll get help or leave home again.
“It’s a lot to think of what’s going to happen or how I’m going to do this,” Lundy said.
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