2020-03-18
Story

Colorado utilities have vowed to keep electricity and related services flowing to people across the state during the coronavirus pandemic—at least for now.

Photo via iStock

By Scott Downes

As the cascade of closures continued in Colorado over this past weekend because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ripple effect and economic implications for families struggling to pay for essentials began to emerge.

Fortunately, many utility providers have announced temporary relief for customers who are and will be experiencing income loss.

Xcel Energy, which serves 1.38 million electricity customers and 1.32 million natural gas customers in Colorado, announced it would suspend disconnections in service.

“We will not disconnect service to any residential customers until further notice,” said Xcel CEO Ben Fowke on the company website.

Atmos Energy, which provides natural gas to 120,000 households primarily in rural and mountain communities, announced a similar suspension of disconnections.

Denver Water, which serves 1.5 million people, also announced it would suspend water shutoffs during the pandemic response.

“Our top priority is to keep employees, partners, contractors and vendors safe and healthy so we can continue to serve our customers,” the utility said. “We are making numerous changes to accomplish this.”

Black Hills Energy, Colorado Natural Gas, and several other municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives have announced similar efforts.

The moves from utility providers came as efforts to head off the worst effects of COVID-19 closed businesses across the state. In unprecedented moves, ski areas across the state closed indefinitely, following an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis. Days later, the governor shuttered all bars, restaurants, gyms, theaters and casinos in Colorado, with the exception of food orders for takeout or delivery. And public health guidance urged minimal social contact and additional restrictions in several mountain communities for residents and visitors alike.

The totality of the effect of the COVID-19 response measures is still not in full view, but one clear aspect is many workers—particularly in restaurants, hospitality, and other hourly wage jobs—will be losing out on income for at least the next month, if not longer.

“A lot of working-class people don’t have the luxury to work from home,” said Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, senior housing organizer with 9to5 Colorado. “And then it’s a trickle-down effect when they can’t pay their bills.”

That means many people who were already living paycheck-to-paycheck will not be able to afford basics, including water, gas, electricity, and even rent and mortgage payments.

Even before the spread of coronavirus hit the state, rising housing costs and stagnant wages had already left many Coloradans vulnerable. According to a 2019 report from the Colorado Center on Law & Policy, the average rent for one- and two-bedroom apartments increased by more than 30% since 2009, while income for the median renter household only increased by 2% over the same period.

Additionally, one in four workers in Colorado are in lower-wage jobs, disproportionately consisting of women, Black, Latinx and multiracial Coloradans.

“This is really showing the intersectionality between working rights and housing rights,” said Guardarrama Trejo. “It again shows that need for us to address these issues now and in the future.”

Without a safety net in place, a patchwork of solutions has emerged to provide relief.

“Access to home energy is absolutely critical, as so many Coloradans are home the next few weeks,” said Jennifer Gremmert, executive director of Energy Outreach Colorado (EOC), in an emailed statement. “As the current economic disruption continues, EOC anticipates that the demand for energy assistance will be more important than ever in the coming months.”

EOC recently released additional energy assistance funds to its agency partners across the state and has assistance available to those who have trouble paying their energy bills. Help can be accessed by calling 1-866-HEAT-HELP (1-866-432-8435) or more information on programs can be found at www.EnergyOutreach.org.

With more and more people isolated at home, data and internet service also become that much more essential. Colorado has made progress in expanding broadband access in recent years, but about 85,000 rural households, or 14% of households in the state, still do not have reliable access to broadband, The Colorado Sun reported.

Comcast, one of the two largest internet service providers in Colorado, is suspending data caps and providing customers unlimited broadband internet nationwide for two months, as well as additional free wifi for low-income households. Service disruptions will also be suspended, and late fees waived, according to a corporate press release. The other large internet service provider in the state, CenturyLink, made a similar pledge.

Yet even with assurances about internet remaining available, some Colorado households won't have devices to utilize it. A Pew Research Center survey of teenagers shows stark differences in teens’ computer access based on their household income. A quarter of teens whose family income is less than $30,000 a year do not have access to a home computer, compared with 4% of those whose annual family income is $75,000 or more.

Beyond utilities, another critical concern is evictions.

At a press conference on the morning of March 16, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced that local law enforcement will suspend eviction enforcements until further notice, saying this is “not the time to be evicting people from their housing.” The City of Denver also highlighted its Temporary Rental and Utility Assistance program as another resource for people in a housing crisis or unable to pay utility bills. At the federal level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has committed to ceasing evictions for Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages through the end of April.

Housing advocates applauded the move to stop enforcing evictions, but remain concerned for workers and families who will continue to face income and job losses.

“That’s great, however that doesn’t necessarily stop eviction filings. Rent will still be due in two weeks,” said Guadarrama Trejo with 9to5 Colorado. “So we’re very concerned in two weeks, people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck will not have income to pay rent.”

“Even though the process might be delayed, at the end of the day people won’t have the money to pay for rent. And we don’t know about other counties yet,” she added.

The underlying details of many of these emergency and temporary policies remain unclear as well. Will customers have to pay costs retroactively? Will late fees and other penalties apply? The potential cost of any delayed payments and “fees that kick in on day one or day three, and sometimes that can be up to half of your rent,” said Guadarrama Trejo.

Thousands of Coloradans face eviction every year. A 2017 study from the Colorado Center on Law & Policy found that evictions in Denver disproportinately affected neighborhoods with high concentrations of people of color and areas experiencing gentrification, including Hampden, Five Points, Gateway-Green Valley Ranch, Montbello and Windsor.

Housing advocates and community leaders are continuing a push for a more comprehensive moratorium on evictions, similar to what’s being done in New York City, Miami and San Jose.

One frustration that activists and advocates are voicing is the degree to which many previously unchangeable policies have suddenly been so adaptable. While it shows the severity of the crisis, it also suggests longstanding systems and practices that disproportionately add barriers for people with lower incomes and people of color do not need to be as entrenched as they seem.

“Whenever the government or a corporation benevolently withdraws some punitive threat because of the coronavirus, it’s a signal that there was never any good reason for that threat to exist in the first place,” wrote Dan Kois for Slate.

Many of the actions being taken amid this crisis directly tie to solutions that advocates have been pushing for years, including strengthened worker rights, housing rights, paid leave and other interconnected issues.

“We needed to be better prepared,” concluded Guadarrama Trejo, “and the reality is we’re not.”

Scott Downes
Writer and Communications Consultant
Denver, Colorado