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Clevelanders' Utility Bills Come Due As Pandemic Worsens, Winter Arrives

As moratoriums that staved off utility disconnections cascade to an end, some Cleveland families face a long winter unsure how they will keep the lights, heat and water on. [Conor Morris / Report for America]

The Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative  is tracking these utilities issues. If you’re willing to share your own story about a big utility bill or struggles to access aid , please fill out their survey There’s also  a guide outlining what utility bill-related aid and payment plans are available for Northeast Ohioans.

By Rachel Dissell and Conor Morris, for the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative

The needs of Greater Clevelanders have come in waves during the pandemic, much like the virus itself: first food, then rent, then internet so students could learn from home. 

Now, as moratoriums that staved off utility disconnections cascade to an end, some families face a long winter unsure how they will keep the lights, heat and water on. Moratoriums on shut-offs with Cleveland Public Power and the Cleveland Water Department, for example, end Tuesday.

The utilities, some privately-run and regulated by the state and others operated by municipalities, offer payment plans and programs to help customers with bills, which in some cases have mounted for months. 

However, utility assistance programs are tough for people to negotiate on their own, said Molly Black, community navigation trainer and coach for United Way of Greater Cleveland’s 211 helpline.

Navigators who answer calls to the helpline spend an extensive amount of time learning the rules of these complex programs, which vary by type of utility, company, season and income.

In some cases, the programs have to be used in a certain order, with some considered “last resort” help. Other programs are targeted to help senior citizens, families with children, veterans or individuals with medical conditions.

That’s why the 211 navigators ask a lot of questions, including ones that might seem nosy, Black said. Like:  Did something happen recently that caused you to fall behind on your bill?  Is this the only bill you need help with? Are you a veteran or a senior citizen? Do you have medical issues?

“We want to get a good understanding of that person's entire situation so that we’re able to provide some very holistic help and not just kind of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” she said.

The city of Cleveland provided some data on Nov. 30, the day befote the moratorium was set to end, in response to a public records request from the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative.

For Cleveland's Water Department, almost 90,000 of about 1.4 million customers were behind on payments as of Nov. 9; for Cleveland Public Power, about 28,500 of about 80,000 customers also were behind with balances more than 30 days old, according to records provided by the city. The average amount owed was $481 for water customers and $281.39 for Cleveland Public Power customers.

Moratoriums End, Leaving Families To Navigate System For Aid

As bills come due, local social service providers worry about a bottleneck as a crush of people apply for federal, state or local assistance to avoid shut-offs. Before the pandemic, customers often had long waits for appointments to get approved for programs like the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP), which allows people to pay a consistent percentage of their income toward a utility bill each month. 

Now, families may have bills that are far higher than usual, with their bills growing while the moratoriums were in place.

“One of the biggest barriers is just being able to get an appointment because, as you can imagine, especially right now there’s just a whole lot of need,” Black said. 

With thousands of people calling the same numbers, some get frustrated. 

“We’ll have folks call and say, ‘I’ve been calling for days and I can’t get through,’” Black added. 

Most gas companies and private electric companies lifted their moratoriums in late summer or early fall, which aligns with an uptick in calls for assistance to 211. In April, the help line had about 1,000 calls for assistance with gas, electric or water bills. By September, with Cleveland-owned utilities still under a moratorium, the calls doubled, returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Legal Aid Society of Cleveland also had more calls from tenants who need help navigating tenant rights, large utility bills and disconnection notices, said Anne M. Reese, senior staff attorney. Legal Aid can connect clients with organizations that administer assistance programs and also help with medical waivers, which can prevent disconnection if a health condition requires it.

“I anticipate that we’re going to get an increase in these utility calls soon,” Reese said, pointing to the upcoming expiration of Cleveland’s moratorium .

Since March, when the city was among the first to announce moratoriums halting disconnections, Cleveland Public Power reconnected 136 customers. Cleveland Water restarted service for 2,390 customers, according to city releases.

With the moratoriums for these utilities ending on Dec. 1, collections letters from Cleveland Public Power and Cleveland Water have already started to show up in customer’s mailboxes.

At a Nov. 10 meeting of Cleveland City Council’s utility committee, Councilman Brian Kazy, the committee’s chairman, said he was frustrated that no information was shared with council before the announcement was made about resuming collections and shutoffs. Kazy said council members, who fielded calls from constituents, found out at the same time as the general public.

Cleveland Director of Public Utilities Robert Davis acknowledged communication could have been better.

“We weathered the storm for as long as we could,” Davis said. “There’s no good time to do this. It’s a balancing act.”

Davis said customers would get ample warning, at least three notices, including a door hanger, before a utility is cut off. 

Assistance Is Here, But How Effective Will It Be?

Financial assistance programs for utility bills are offered to Cuyahoga County residents through the non-profit CHN Housing Partners. Those include a recently announced $2 million program that will help pay off overdue electric, water, sewer and gas bills.

That program is available to anyone at or below 120 percent of the median household income of Cuyahoga County – about $91,000 for a family of four – who has been negatively impacted by COVID-19. Only bills due since March, when the pandemic hit Ohio, are eligible.

The Council for Economic Development of Greater Cleveland (CEOGC) is another nonprofit that runs utility assistance programs in Cuyahoga County. It has a $6.8 million fund – financed through the federal CARES Act – similarly meant to help people hurt by COVID-19 pay overdue rent, utility bills and mortgage payments.

People applying for help have to live in Cuyahoga County and qualify based on income that is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $52,400 for a family of four.  Nearby Summitand Lorain county community action agencies also have CARES Act-funded utility support available.

Officials with CHN and CEOGC said they’re allowing people to attest – or swear – they meet the “hardship due to COVID-19” requirement, like a loss of income, additional childcare needs, illness or other factors, without providing documentation.

However, unless Congress authorizes an extension of CARES Act federal relief funds, both funds – which were announced in early-to-mid November – will expire on Dec. 31. Since announcing the program in early November, CEOGC has seen almost 2,000 applications for CARES Act-related aid as of Nov. 23.

CHN has also had a steady stream of requests for aid with utility bills, said Laurie Leverette, CHN’s community resource manager.

“People have either lost their jobs or they’re on furlough,” Leverette said.  “They’ve lost their childcare, which impacts their ability to work. Either they’ve gotten sick, or they’ve stopped work to care for a family member who has gotten sick. It runs the full gamut.”

Before the pandemic hit, there was already a delay, sometimes up to nearly a month, to get an appointment to sign up for PIPP, a program that allows people with lower incomes pay a set percentage of their wages for utilities each month, Leverette said.

However, families facing an impending disconnection are prioritized with CHN, and typically get an appointment set up within 24 hours, Leverette added.

Currently, CHN can handle 125 utility assistance appointments a day and is always at capacity (though no appointment is necessary for CARES Act assistance), said Laura Boustani, a spokeswoman for CHN. About 66 percent of those who have applied for city and county rental assistance programs so far also have told the agency they need help with utility bills, Boustani said.

All of the assistance programs require applicants to provide documentation, which frequently includes copies of bills, birth certificates or Social Security cards, and other personal records. 

That can be made more difficult with these programs going remote-only, Legal Aid’s Anne Reese said. Most documents can be submitted electronically but that can be a barrier for people who don’t have computers or internet access.

What’s Next?

The scope of possible disconnections in the coming months is unclear. 

Most privately run utility providers and the City of Cleveland did not respond or declined to share numbers of customers already disconnected or estimates for pending disconnections with the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio tracks disconnections for state-regulated utilities. Recently provided commission data showed drastic drops in disconnections compared with last year while the moratoriums were in effect; now, disconnections are on the rise again.

Meanwhile, with winter months approaching, community agencies and churches, like Nueva Vida Church in Tremont, which has a mostly Hispanic congregation, have been helping people get signed up for utility assistance programs.

There’s always a big need for this help during the winter months for low-income families, Maria Nela, assistant executive director of Nueva Vida, said. 

“That’s been like that always,” Nela said. “Now, with COVID, it’s probably worse.”

It can be difficult for these families to navigate the system of benefits they might be eligible for, she said. Another problem: If they make just a dollar over the income requirements for these programs, they don’t qualify.

Over in Lorain County, Jackie Boehnlein, president and CEO of Lorain County Community Action, said her agency has seen a significant uptick in requests for utility and other aid, especially from people who are new to the system.

These are people who said they would “never dream of being in a food line” before this year, she said.

The Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative  is tracking these utilties issues. If you’re willing to share your own story about a big utility bill or struggles to access aid , please fill out their survey There’s also  a guide outlining what utility bill-related aid and payment plans are available for Northeast Ohioans.

Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America . Rachel Dissell is an independent Cleveland-based journalist. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative , which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including ideastream. ideasatream's Taylor Haggerty, The Devil's Strip's Abbey Marshall and WKYC's Phil Trexler contributed reporting to this story.