Picture of a running sink.
Photo by Imani on Unsplash
The week after Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration abruptly stopped accepting applications for the STAY D.C. rent and utility assistance program on Oct. 27, the D.C. Council passed a bill to help protect city residents facing utility cutoffs and evictions because of financial hardships during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tenant Safe Harbor Emergency Amendment Act of 2021, which is currently under mayoral review with a Dec. 13 deadline, comes as city lawmakers and other officials grow increasingly concerned about the welfare of residents who continue to face financial hardships and may have to reckon with paying off overdue utility bills this winter. Council members hope the reprieve will provide time for eligible D.C. residents to seek help through a variety of assistance programs.

If enacted, the Safe Harbor legislation will provide tenants with new protections to use for defense in eviction cases due to unpaid rent, and prevent utility companies from shutting off service for customers due to lack of payment under a range of qualifying scenarios. These include situations where customers might owe less than $600 or have entered into payment agreements with the company.

Residents participating in programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF) would also be protected from disconnections under the bill.

The previous moratorium on utility cutoffs — which the D.C. Council put in place for the duration of the public health emergency declared by the mayor at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — expired on Oct. 12. Two days later, Bowser announced that the District was on track to spend all of its federally allocated STAY D.C. funds and would soon stop accepting applications for the program. Both the Bowser administration and D.C. Council members are calling on the federal government to provide the District with more funds once they become available because other states have not distributed their original allocations.

Of the $34 million in requests for utility assistance received by STAY D.C., $9.6 million had been awarded as of Nov. 12, according to a report from the D.C. Department of Human Services. The average amounts provided to individual recipients were $529 for gas, $861 for electricity, and $1,054 for water.

Whether the mayor approves the emergency legislation or not, there are a number of resources available for people seeking help to pay for their utilities and other expenses.

The DC Line and Street Sense Media contacted the Office of the People’s Counsel, the Public Service Commission, and the Department of Energy and Environment to learn how people facing economic difficulties can obtain assistance in paying their utilities. The OPC is an independent agency that is responsible for advocating for the rights of consumers of gas, phone, and electricity services in the city while the PSC is responsible for regulating those industries; OPC also has a division that advocates on behalf of DC Water customers. DOEE also administers various programs and services related to utility and energy use in the city.

I need help with my utilities. Who should I call?

 

    • You can always start with 311, the main point of access for city services. If a person is seeking assistance with their utilities and does not know where to turn, they can always pick up the phone and dial 311, according to Maurice Smith, the director of the Office of Consumer Services at the D.C. Public Service Commission. “Just in terms of facility, that might be the easiest, best route,” he said.
    • Residents can also reach out directly to the Public Service Commission at 202-626-5100 or the Office of the People’s Counsel at 202-727-3071 and speak to someone directly about their individual case.
    • D.C. also has a recently launched information portal called Front Door D.C. (https://www.frontdoor.dc.gov) where residents can learn more about programs they might qualify for that subsidize their utility expenses.
    • Eligibility for different programs varies but is usually based on household size and maximum annual income. While these criteria are not used for all discount and subsidy programs, they are the basis for many, including discount programs for electricity, gas, and phone services. A chart on the PSC website lists the general income caps: $72,250 for a one-person household; $82,600 for two people; $92,900 for three people; $103,200 for four people; $113,550 for five people; $123,850 for six people; $134,200 for seven people; and $144,500 for eight people.


    What should I do if I can’t pay for all of my utilities in full?

     

        • You can develop a payment plan. Kellie Didigu, the communications officer at the Public Service Commission, stressed the importance of being proactive to avoid experiencing utility shutoffs.Instead of just waiting for these bills to accumulate, we really need people to make a plan, to do that research and find out what programs are available, and then make certain that you’re paying what you can so that you don’t get so far behind,” she said.
        • The Office of the People’s Counsel echoed this sentiment. Not only are there payment programs in place at utility providers such as Washington Gas and Pepco, but the Office of the People’s Counsel can help people who don’t qualify for those existing programs to negotiate payment plans.


        What do I do if I need help with other expenses that aren’t necessarily utilities-related? 

         

            • Often, people seeking help with utilities are also facing other kinds of financial hardships, explained Aaron S. Ward, the director of the Consumer Services Division in the Office of the People’s Counsel. “We try to keep in mind that, although they’re calling about utilities, nine times out of 10, they have other financial issues that they have to attend to as well,” Ward said. While the Office of the People’s Counsel does not operate the various utility relief programs, it is an information resource for residents seeking to learn more about them. Call takers there can also help coordinate payment plans with their utility providers.
            • Together the Office of the People’s Counsel, the Public Service Commission, the Department of Energy and Environment, and the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility assembled a list of resources that can be found at here2helpdc.dc.gov. The OPC has an additional page with contact information for various community partners that can also provide assistance to people needing help with utilities or other economic hardships.
            • DOEE administers a weatherization assistance program that fixes inoperable heating and cooling systems for qualifying residents. Residents can call 202-299-3316 for more information about the program.


          I’m not behind on payments, but is there help available on how to reduce my utility costs?

           

              • You might be paying more for utilities than you need to. Depending on your income level, you may qualify for utility discount programs through Pepco, Washington Gas, and Verizon. There is also a program administered through DOEE called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides assistance benefits between $250 and $1,800 for up to two payments per fiscal year, according to Kenley Farmer, the deputy director of DOEE’s Utility Affordability Administration.

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          This article was co-published with The DC Line.

          Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.