Friday, September 25, 2009

Hearing Voices: LaTanya Lloyd, Tenant Activist; The Crisis of Utility Shutoffs in Metro Detroit

Hearing Voices: LaTanya Lloyd, tenant activist

Posted by Darrell Dawsey Friday, September 25, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Stories are often best told by the people who live them. With that in mind, I'd like to introduce to my corner of the Detroit Blog an occasional segment I call “Hearing Voices,” a series of first-person takes on the realities of life in our area.

LaTanya Lloyd, 39, is a wife and mother of two who helped lead fellow tenants of the Highland Towers Apartments, located in the Detroit enclave of Highland Park, in protests against utility provider DTE Energy. The pickets, sparked after the utility company cut the building's power in a payment dispute with the ownership, escalated into to legal action. On Sept. 11, after almost two weeks of residents living in the dark, a judge ordered DTE to turn the juice back on for a week so the 150 tenants could relocate. Lloyd explains what compelled her to fight (for) the power...

Me and my children were in our apartment back on Sept. 1 — when everything just suddenly went dark.

We talked to a few people, and we found out that all the power had gone off in the whole building. At first everybody was confused. But you know, it doesn't take very long to figure out that the utility company has turned off your lights. We just didn't know why.

When we got in touch with DTE, they told us that our lights were turned off because our landlord hadn't paid the utility bill. But that doesn't mean we didn't pay! The tenants paid every month. Our utilities were part of our rent.

It turned out that the owner had sold the building -- but we didn't know. We were just paying rent like we always did. The property manager took our rent for 15 months, knowing the building had been sold but not telling us they weren't paying the bills!

When we went to talk to DTE, it was like DTE just didn't...I hate to say it, but it was like they just didn't give a s***. One of the executives told us that the landlord owed over $150,000 to DTE. He said, "No, we're not turning the power back on. This is a business, and we're in business to make money."

We understood that the (past owner) hadn't paid the bill. All we wanted was for them to give us enough time to move. We weren't asking for a handout -- but not everybody has the money to move right away. Nobody here is rich. Plus, we had families to think about, too — older people, children. How can you come in and throw 80-something families out on the street? But it was like DTE didn't care.

A few days after the power went out, a man named Abayomi from Moratorium Now! approached us. Moratorium Now! works with people in the community to stop unfair evictions and foreclosures. And that's basically what this was – an unfair eviction. Once they got involved, things changed real fast. We got hooked up with Legal Aid and Defenders attorneys, and we took DTE to court.

They still kept fighting us! They told the judge lies about giving us notice, things like that. We never saw any notice from them. Our notice was the power going out.

We're human beings, and we matter. And we just weren't going to let them do that to us without a fight. And we didn't.

And you know…we won.

August 31, 2009

DTE payment plan leaves some cold

Shut-Off Protection program helps, until 1 payment missed

The Detroit News

Detroit -- Out of work following a heart attack and several strokes, James Whitley made a deal with his utility company.

He agreed to nip away at the $3,500 he owed for gas and electricity, paying just $70 a month.

The plan worked until he missed a payment. The utility then asked for the entire amount. He couldn't pay, and his power was cut.

"I was doing really good," said 52-year-old Whitley. "I missed one payment."

Whitley is one of thousands who have enrolled in one of DTE Energy's payment plans targeting seniors and low-income customers. The utility offers a year-round plan, called the Shut-Off Protection Plan, which promises to keep the utilities on provided that customers pay their outstanding balance through extended payments.

DTE is now ramping up efforts to sign up low-income customers onto the plan, company officials said. But advocates for the poor say such programs have strict requirements that don't consider the financial uncertainty of Michigan's poor. When customers miss a payment, they're kicked off the plan and face shutoff.

Unable to manage his bills, Whitley eventually lost his home. He now lives with his nephew in Carleton.

DTE officials say the plans are designed to help their most vulnerable customers make their payments. They're also one way the company, which has millions in uncollected bills, seeks to collect on delinquent customers.

Several factors can contribute to customers racking up thousands in unpaid bills. Some defer most of their utility payments in the winter when they are protected from shutoff. Others delay payments because of medical emergencies. More than a quarter of DTE's 50,000 low-income customers enrolled in the protection plan defaulted in July. At Consumers Energy, which offers a similar plan with the same name, 1,459 of its 31,294 enrolled customers defaulted in the same month.

Most vulnerable defaulting

Most often, it is the most vulnerable customers -- seniors and low-income families -- who accrue thousands of dollars in arrearages, mostly in the winter months when utilities are prohibited from shutting off their power. During these months, customers only pay a fraction of their annual bill.

When winter ends, those customers have to start making payments toward their balance again or they face shutoff.

In recent years, both utilities have pushed to sign struggling customers onto the Shut-Off Protection Plan, which requires a 10 percent down payment of the balance. The remainder must be paid over 12 to 24 months. A missed payment kicks the customer off the plan and leaves three options: pay the entire balance, lose service or start the payment plan over with another 10 percent down payment.

"For the most part, that works until a calamity befalls," said John X. Miller, executive director of The Heat and Warmth Fund, a Detroit-based agency that provides cash assistance for utility bills.

The agency depleted its state funds in May and is now seeking federal funds to continue until October.

"The dire circumstances of folks in Michigan has gotten worse," Miller added.

For the last two years, Denyell Pierce, 31, struggled to get out from under a $5,000 utility bill. Disabled from severe herniated disks at the age of 22, she lives month-to-month on food stamps and disability checks. A missed payment on a reduced payment plan in 2007 left her with no power.

She endured several shutoffs before receiving $1,400 in help from the Department of Human Services. This month, Pierce signed back onto the plan, with a $700 down payment. She still owes $7,303.

"I have to borrow the money." Pierce said. "They claim they help, they say they help. But they don't."

Options offer temporary fix

This summer, state officials have doled out as much as $32 million of the $245 million in federal help to people like Pierce, customers who have accrued whopping balances with their utilities. That amounted to help for nearly 76,000 households.

The utilities in Michigan agreed to supplement 25 percent of the assistance, which amounts to about $11 million.

"It went really fast," said Barbara Anders, director of the Bureau of Adult and Family Services at the Michigan Department of Human Services, who helps administer the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

"That's a real good indicator in terms of the number of people that had arrearages," she added.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, said that the amount of utility assistance available in Michigan, in the form of financial assistance and payment options with utility companies, is better than in most other states.

Michigan's federal allocation for utility assistance this year was the second largest among recipient states; Illinois was first.

But the poverty and chronic unemployment here may be too great for programs that are primarily designed to offer temporary fixes.

"They're good programs, but they're not programs designed for people that have very little money left," Wolfe said. "That's a new thing."

David Johnson, customer care operations manager at DTE Energy, said when customers miss a payment, the staff works aggressively to reach out to them.

The company now sends case management workers and volunteers to churches and community events to inform customers about assistance programs.

DTE and Consumers introduced their Shut-Off Protection Plans after the state Public Service Commission approved the plan in late 2007.

In a phone interview, Mick Hiser, director of the state's service quality division, said that the plans were welcomed as an additional protection for desperate customers from shutoffs beyond the winter months. He said the protections for consumers include waivers for reconnection fees and the option to sign back onto the plan.

Still, shutoffs continue.

DTE has ordered 115,000 utility shutoffs this year, a figure sure to outpace last year's total of 142,000. Consumers has tallied 66,274 as of July.

Officials at DTE say the company has $500 million in unpaid consumer bills from the last five years. The company, along with its subsidiary MichCon, provides 3.2 million customers with electricity and gas.

Consumers Energy, with 3.5 million customers, expects this year to have $53 million in unpaid customer accounts, up from $46 million in 2008.The payment program's success could affect all of the utilities' customers. If the utilities can't cover their losses, the burden falls on paying customers through rate increases.

Starting in September, MichCon customers will pay an average of $3.48 more a month to help reimburse the gas provider's $87 million in unpaid bills last year. The fee will be charged for 15 months.

"The more people that can't pay their bill, that affects the rate base," Wolfe said.

"It's a real problem. You have a lot of problems in Michigan that create more problems.""> (313) 222-2019

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