Tlaib Introduces Landmark Bill to Stop Utility Shutoffs for Struggling Families

August 6, 2021
Press Release

WASHINGTON—Today, Congresswoman Tlaib (MI-13) introduced the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act, a landmark piece of legislation that would cancel ever-rising household debt for water, power, and broadband services to help U.S. families back on their feet by:

  • Providing a total of $13.5 billion in low-interest loans to public and private water utilities, which will be forgiven when the utility forgives household water arrears;
  • Providing $13 billion in low-interest loans to power utilities, which will be forgiven when the utility forgives household arrears;
  • Providing $13 billion in low-interest loans to broadband utilities, which will be forgiven when the utility forgives household arrears;
  • Requiring loan recipients to suspend utility shutoffs and restore any disconnected service, suspend late fees and charges, stop the sale of household debt to debt collectors, stop placing or selling liens on households due to outstanding utility debt, and stop filing adverse reports on households due to unpaid utility bills to credit agencies; and
  • Establishing reporting requirements about disconnections and arrearages.

 

The legislation, a companion piece to the bill Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced in the Senate, seeks to create a $39.5 billion new loan-to-grant program for power, water, and broadband utilities to cover the cost of uncollected household payments in exchange for suspending shutoffs, tax liens, and late fees. Its introduction comes as millions of families continue to suffer economic hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic. Estimates show that people across the country are facing utility debt in the tens of billions as a direct result of the pandemic-driven unemployment crisis, with families of color disproportionately affected. Recent data also shows that more than 100,000 families in Detroit since 2014 have had their water disconnected because they could not afford their bills, which makes preventing water and other vital utility shutoffs a personal mission of Congresswoman Tlaib.

 

“Utility shutoffs—from water to power to broadband Internet—leave our most vulnerable communities without essential life sustaining services and are especially unacceptable during a deadly pandemic,” Congresswoman Tlaib said. “So many of us have eviction protection on our minds right now. A new study showing low-income Michigan families pay more than 30% of their household income on utility bills alone, creating a direct path to debt and eviction makes the issue that much more pertinent. We have to break the cycle and ensure folks can keep their lights on, their water running, and the roofs over their head. I’m so grateful for the continued partnership of my House colleagues and the Utility Justice coalition who have fought alongside us every step of the way to end the injustice of utility shutoffs in this country.”

 

Joining the legislation’s introduction in the House as original cosponsors are Reps. Jesús G. "Chuy" García (IL-04), Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03), Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), and Ro Khanna (CA-17). It’s also garnered the support of a number of advocacy organizations comprising the Utility Justice Coalition.  

 

​​"Congresswoman Tlaib's Utility Debt Relief bill is a great example of legislation that centers economic and racial justice to support local recovery and prosperity,” said Juan Jhong-Chung of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “Low-income communities and communities of color in Detroit continue to be impacted by systemic racism, pollution, and the COVID pandemic. How can investor-owned utilities make record profits while our families struggle to pay monthly bills? We cannot build back better if we leave the most vulnerable behind." 

 

“Not just as an organizer with Soulardarity, but as a consumer and a resident of Highland Park, I know how important it is that our communities get some kind of debt relief for energy, because when you’re without power, or you’re worried about being shut off because you don’t have the finances, you are constantly in stress,” said Michelle Jones, Energy Democracy Fellowship Coordinator with Soulardarity in Highland Park, Michigan. “I've been there. It’s not that I didn't want to pay the bill, it’s that I couldn't pay the bill. And it was the worst when I was raising my children. Parents need to know that when they need that gas, lights, heat to take care of their families, that it’s there. And to know that our elected leaders have the power to make that available — we need them to take the stress off.”  

 

“With the rapid spread of the new COVID variant, we are living the resurgence of the utility shutoffs tsunami that disproportionately harms communities of color,” said Jean Su, Energy Justice Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Congress must include Rep. Tlaib’s bill in the reconciliation package to ensure that no family is cut off from access to basic human rights of power, water, and broadband. It’s outrageous that private fossil fuel utilities control access to these public goods. We need to massively invest in public community and rooftop-solar solutions to stop the systemic energy shutoffs crisis and empower communities of color who for too long have borne the brunt of our racist and dirty energy system.”

 

“Congresswoman Tlaib’s debt relief bill will bring economic recovery to vulnerable Kansans who have been taking on the energy burden for too long,” said Climate + Energy Project Program Director Beth Pauley. “The Climate + Energy Project knows we cannot pursue a just transition while so many Kansans are struggling. We need to continue to address the energy poverty crisis by implementing equitable energy efficiency and community solar programs, with impacted communities leading the policies and program implementation. Kansans need to have their basic needs met in order to organize for long term climate solutions.”

 

“As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it is more essential than ever that people have access to water, electricity, and broadband service. This bill is a critical first step to support low-wealth families and communities of color that have borne the brunt of compounding threats of utility shut-offs and poverty,” said Alissa Weinman, Associate Campaign Director at Corporate Accountability. “This bill would direct sorely needed federal funds towards our water systems. Sustained, long-term federal investments in our infrastructure are necessary to ensure that everyone has access to clean and affordable water.” 

 

“Families across the country have accrued billions of dollars in water debt during this pandemic, and now, as we are in the midst of another COVID surge, they are suffering water shutoffs, a life-threatening injustice that must be stopped,” said Mary Grant, the Public Water for All Campaign Director at Food & Water Watch. “Communities urgently need the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act to keep the water, power, and broadband on and forgive crushing household utility debt. We applaud Rep. Tlaib for her leadership on this legislation.”

 

“Internet service is an essential utility not only in emergencies but all of the time. With COVID cases on the rise again, we don't know what the coming months hold; but even if kids can go back to school and people can go back to work, an affordable internet connection is still a must,” said Matt Wood, Vice President of Policy for Free Press Action. “Even if the health crisis were further behind us, the economic crises brought on by the pandemic only compounded the crushing debt and discriminatory impacts already faced by millions of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people across the country. Free Press Action thanks Rep. Tlaib for introducing the House version of this important bill, to keep people who are unable to pay for  internet service from getting disconnected today or drowned in debt down the line.”

 

"We are experiencing two global pandemics: the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. Rep. Tlaib's debt relief bill will bring necessary relief to the many Georgians facing economic hardships and mounting utility debt,” said Codi Norred, Executive Director of Georgia Interfaith Power & Light (GIPL). “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over four million Georgians are facing unemployment. As people of faith, Georgia Interfaith Power & Light believes this bill is both the moral and equitable action to take for all Americans. We cannot truly combat the climate crisis and COVID-19 when people are concerned about having air conditioning, heat, water, or gas."

 

“Adequate, affordable housing is a human right, and affordable utilities are an essential part of that. Energy infrastructure doesn’t just mean the power lines above us and pipes below us, but the ability for every American to get those utilities into their homes reliably and sustainably,” said Eric Tars, Legal Director, National Homelessness Law Center. “We need Rep. Tlaib’s Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act to ensure the health of our families in their homes, and prevent the evictions and homelessness that could spike further the already exploding Delta variant of the COVID pandemic in our most vulnerable communities. Without this bill, any larger infrastructure action that Congress takes will be incomplete.” 

  

“Low-income New Yorkers average $1000 in utility debt, even as they are struggling under the effects of the pandemic,” said Adam Flint, Director of Clean Energy Programs at the Network for a Sustainable Tomorrow (NEST). “This legislation will help thousands of our neighbors who already suffered from a crushing energy burden prior to the current crisis. Rep. Tlaib’s debt relief bill is an important step, which should be followed by a Green New Deal to address the housing, employment and climate crises our communities face.”

 

“As the pandemic raged, the media and government rallied Americans by proclaiming that we were all in this together. But the reality was harsher. While we were encouraged to move our personal and professional lives online for the sake of public health, millions of us struggled to access our schools, jobs, and government and nonprofit programs because of the lack of affordable broadband access,” said Amy Sample War, the CEO of NTEN. “Broadband is vital to our lives in 21st century America. To turn off someone’s access is to say their participation in society isn’t needed or wanted. That’s not just un-American. It’s unconscionable.”

 

The text of the bill can be read here.