By: - August 3, 2021 11:59 am

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Updated, 3:31 p.m., 8/3/21

As a national moratorium expired Saturday that will likely trigger a massive wave of evictions, a new report shows that utility shutoffs are a big reason renters in Michigan face evictions and subsequent homelessness.

The Lansing-based Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) study outlines policy recommendations for how lawmakers should deal with utility bill costs. 

According to the new study written by Senior Policy Analyst Julie Cassidy, Michigan families who are below 50% of the federal poverty level (FPL) spend more than 30% of their household income on utility bills alone. Households up to 200% of the FPL also face a gap of $1,315 each year between energy bills and what they can actually afford. 

“For many families with low incomes, housing comes with high energy bills. An affordable rent or mortgage payment often means living in a home with outdated heating and cooling systems, sparse insulation, leaky windows or other structural issues that lead to energy waste,” Cassidy writes. “… As the COVID-19 crisis continues to stress families’ health and finances, strengthening household energy security is more important than ever to ensure safe housing for all Michiganders and promote thriving communities.”

The MLPP also found a large racial discrepancy, with the burden of energy costs being 24% greater for Latinx and 64% greater for Black households. 

Having utilities shut off and being evicted can also lead to Michiganders losing rental assistance like Housing Choice Vouchers. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, requests for assistance with utility bills remained one of the most common reasons Michiganders consulted Michigan 2-1-1, a service that helps residents connect to local resources for basic needs. Michigan 2-1-1 has received more than 67,000 calls from people seeking help with electric bill payments during the COVID-19 pandemic. From April 18 to July 18, electric bill assistance has been the top request from callers.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to stress families’ health and finances, strengthening household energy security is more important than ever to ensure safe housing for all Michiganders and promote thriving communities.

– Michigan League for Public Policy Senior Policy Analyst Julie Cassidy

The calls for help with utility bills also come as 80,789 Michigan residents reported they were likely to face eviction within the next two months according to recent census data. Of those, 60,940 live in the Detroit metro area. Nationwide, around 3.6 million people said they were set to face an eviction in the next two months. 

The mass wave of evictions comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked the authority to prevent landlords from evicting renters who have not paid their rent throughout the pandemic. 

The White House claims it has lost the legal authority to keep the ban alive. So President Joe Biden has urged state and local governments to put a pause on evictions for at least two months and called on them to utilize $46.5 billion from the coronavirus package for tenants and landlords. 

Michigan has doled out $34.3 million in rental assistance in June to help 5,298 households, more than $28 million in May and $11.2 million in April.

Democrats tried last week to extend federal legal protections until December, but were unsuccessful. 

In order to help renters and landlords alike, the state of Michigan utilized federal aid last summer to create the $50 million Eviction Diversion Program which touched 16,000 households across the state. 

The state replaced that program in March 2021 with the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance program, which aims to disburse $282 million to help 140,000 Michiganders. In order to qualify for the program, tenants or landlords with incomes at or below 80% of their local median amount qualify for the funds. So far, only 16,000 households have been approved out of 21,500 applicants. About $108 million of the aid has been delegated out, with $18 million of it going to Detroit residents. 

In June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation spending $378.3 million in federal funding within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) for grant awards to be used to assist renter households at or below 80% of area median income and to support the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which includes rental and utility assistance payments, housing stability services and case management to eligible renters impacted by COVID-19.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, another federal program aimed at helping renters, has reached less than one in six households in Michigan. 

The MLPP gave policy recommendations across four areas: 

  • Expanding utility shutoff protections to households with young kids
  • Providing more funding for home repairs that promote health and safety
  • Creating a pilot program to study the effects of energy efficiency improvements on housing stability and health outcomes
  • Implementing income-based utility bills for low-income households 
Lansing Tenants Union protest at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s residence, May 1, 2020 | Audrey Matusz

The study highlighted that affordable energy helps to ensure a healthy diet, personal hygiene, adequate sleep, productive work and many other benefits.

Gilda Jacobs, MLPP president and CEO, said in a press release last month that the lack of energy efficiency and high utility costs can lead to serious health risks, noting that “energy use is imperative for personal hygiene, household cleanliness, food preparation and more.”

“All families deserve affordable, safe homes, and energy bills stand in the way of that for many Michigan residents,” said Jacobs. “And as with many problems our state faces, energy usage and efficiency shows racial disparities and inequities that impact physical and mental health, safety and financial stability.”

One solution mentioned in the study to ensure affordable energy is reached and maintained was to prevent utility shutoffs for households with children. Michigan currently has protections against turning off services during the heating season for those aged 65 or older. The study said this specifically will help children with asthma, with the disease being the number one reason children miss school and 40% of asthma episodes being caused by something in a house.

Another solution proposed by the study suggested that the state prioritize home repairs with its Community Development Block Grant, create a revenue stream for Michigan’s housing trust fund and support other programs dedicated to helping improve poor housing conditions that prevent beneficial energy efficiency. 

The study also recommended the state conduct a study to analyze the link between energy efficiency and health impacts within low-income families. Michigan is currently holding a pilot program to investigate the impact of housing vouchers on health and healthcare spending for those who have faced chronic homelessness. 

And the MLPP proposes that the state of Michigan adopt percentage-of-income payment plans for utility customers who are struggling to pay the bills. The plan would enable a customer to pay a fixed percentage of their income on the utility bill and the rest would be made up by assistance program funds. As customers pay each payment on time, the amount they owed in the past is reduced. Michigan already has plans like this in place, but the MLPP’s study suggested that the plans should be extended to low-income families. 

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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.

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