With Recall Over, California Must Boldly Move Forward on Equity, Greenlining Institute Says

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With the whole nation watching, Governor Gavin Newsom has survived the attempt to recall him from office, buoyed by progressive voter turnout. The Greenlining Institute is calling for California to reenergize the push for true racial and economic equity and to reform the state’s dysfunctional recall process.

“Communities of color are California’s majority and it looks like they turned out in serious numbers to reject candidates who claim that systemic racism doesn’t exist, who deny climate change, and who make preposterous claims of voter fraud before the polls were even closed,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “Our communities are still weighed down by the effects of centuries of systemic racism, which are exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and climate disasters. That came from deliberate policy choices and can only be fixed through deliberate policy choices.”

“We urge the governor and legislature to show their commitment to racial equity by moving forward with SB 17 (Pan), which would create a statewide Office of Racial Equity to identify and eliminate racism in state policy and address inequality in state programs,” Gore-Mann said. “It’s time for California to take a systematic approach to ending the racial wealth gap and ensuring that all our state’s communities can prosper. And it’s time to move forward energetically with policies to fight climate change that put equity front and center.”

The Greenlining Institute has been encouraged by recent passage of critically needed climate equity funding. Public opinion polling has consistently shown that, by a greater than two to one margin, Californians think we need to accelerate our actions to fight climate change. The margins are even greater among Black, Asian American Pacific Islander and Latino voters.

“Tackling climate change and confronting systemic racism are not disconnected,” Gore-Mann said. “They are two sides of the same coin, and our communities deserve leadership that understands these realities.

The Greenlining Institute rejects the problematic narrative that falsely pits economic well-being and health against climate action. When we prioritize equity with bold solutions, we can move beyond a zero-sum game and benefit all.

“And finally, California needs to rethink this undemocratic recall process,” Gore-Mann added. “The current system makes it too easy for a small, well-funded minority to replace a leader who has broad public support with someone supported by far fewer Californians.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

Extending the Utility Shut Off Moratorium and Water and Wastewater Arrearages Payment Program Amendments

Letter Summary:

To state legislature asking for shutoff moratoria for both water + power (energy services) until March 31, 2022.

“On behalf of the undersigned organizations, we urge you to extend the moratorium for shutoffs for water and energy customers until March 31, 2022, in order to allow for agencies to distribute arrearages funds before Californians lose access to their water or power.”

 

Download Letter

CA State Budget Bills Fund Critical Climate Equity Priorities

Urgently Needed Dollars Go to Climate Resilience, Transformative Climate Communities and More 

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA – With climate disasters in the headlines worldwide, The Greenlining Institute applauded the California State Legislature for passing legislation, SB 155 and SB 170, that provides vital funding to help California’s most underserved communities fight climate change and cope with its increasingly dangerous effects. Earlier this summer, the governor and state legislators passed a budget that included $3.7 billion in spending for climate resilience programs. These budget trailer bills flesh out the details of how that money will be spent.

“California continues to lead by example with this unprecedented level of investment in climate resilience,” said Greenlining Institute Vice President of Policy Alvaro Sanchez. “This funding represents a critical down payment on what must be a long-term effort to protect our climate and build resilience in frontline communities. Communities of color and low-income Californians disproportionately bear the brunt of the climate crisis, and it will take sustained effort to ensure that our communities not only survive but thrive.”

“We thank Gov. Newsom for including these priorities in his May budget revision and the legislature for agreeing to fund them,” Sanchez added. “This couldn’t have gotten done without their collective action and the tireless efforts of countless community advocates.”

Key priorities included in the legislation include:

  • Transformative Climate Communities. This groundbreaking but underfunded climate change program funds local communities to develop integrated programs to cut carbon emissions and create more livable neighborhoods, linking elements like clean transportation and clean energy with affordable housing and more. Despite being chronically underfunded in years past, the program received $115 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year and a commitment to $420 million over three years. The Greenlining Institute will release a detailed equity evaluation of this landmark program later this year.
  • Capacity Building. Environmental racism has left too many communities without the resources needed to compete for investments to cope with increasingly severe heat waves, droughts, floods, etc. The budget provides $10 million this year and a commitment to $10 million next year to launch the Regional Climate Collaboratives program, which builds the capacity of impacted communities to make critical investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  • Low-Income Weatherization Program. This vital program, which in some years has gone completely unfunded, helps low-income families weatherize their homes, save energy and preserve health and safety during extreme weather. The program received $15 million in the new budget year targeted at multifamily housing.
  • Zero-Emission Vehicles. The budget provides $150 million in the first year and a commitment to $400 million over three years for equity programs like Clean Cars 4 All, which helps lower-income drivers replace their old, polluting cars with clean vehicles.
  • Urban Greening and Urban Forestry. These programs, which reduce carbon while bringing needed shade and cooling to communities lacking tree cover, receive $60 million for 2021-22 and a commitment to a total of $250 million over three years.
  • Community Resilience Hubs. The legislation also calls for a total of $200 million from 2022-2024 to create a new grant program for community resilience hubs, which would provide integrated delivery of emergency response services in community institutions like libraries and health clinics.

“We’re encouraged by much of what is in this budget legislation, but it’s important to remember that only the first year of funding for these critical programs is guaranteed,” said Sona Mohnot, Greenlining’s Associate Director of Climate Equity. “At The Greenlining Institute, we will keep fighting to ensure California’s frontline communities get the resources they need over the long haul to fight climate change and build healthy, prosperous neighborhoods.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

Greenlining Institute calls for more regulation of fintech and nonbank home lenders

By Mark Calvey
San Francisco Business Times

The Greenlining Institute, the Oakland nonprofit that advocates for economic equity and increased lending to California’s communities of color, is calling for greater regulation of fintech and nonbank mortgage lenders.

Read more at the original site.

Stopping the Next Mortgage Meltdown

By Debra Gore-Mann
The Progressive

After the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown tanked the U.S. and global economies, Congress wrote rules to stabilize the financial industry. But the mortgage market has changed radically since then, and the regulations that govern it haven’t kept up, creating a new house of cards that could easily collapse.

My organization, The Greenlining Institute, researched this issue for a new report, A Fair Financial System: Regulating Fintech and Nonbank Lenders, and what we found was disturbing.

Did you know that two-thirds of home mortgages in the United States are not underwritten by banks? They’re written by internet-based financial technology, or fintech, firms — whose share of the market has increased more than six-fold since 2009. Because fintech lenders don’t have physical branches or take deposits, they aren’t subject to most federal and state regulations that govern banks.

That opens the door to all sorts of risks and predatory practices, some of which particularly endanger communities of color and low-income borrowers, putting the whole economy at risk.

These “nonbanks,” as they’re sometimes called, target communities that have been historically denied access to financial products and services from traditional banks, so they may have more customers that are people of color and low-to-moderate income.

And they aren’t subject to the federal Community Reinvestment Act, a vital anti-redlining law that requires banks to meet the credit needs of the communities they serve. In fact, there’s no overarching law governing fintech lenders at all, so regulators know much less about how fintechs operate than they know about banks.

We do know that fintechs tend to have relatively little cash on hand and lots of debt. How precarious are they should the housing market falter? We don’t know. And we need this data to avoid another housing crash like that of 2008.

Inadequate regulation means we have little information about the fintechs’ lending patterns, or whether they discriminate. The enormous data gaps mean we can’t know whether these borrowers are being treated fairly.

Meanwhile, traditional banks have been closing branches in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, effectively discarding their Community Reinvestment Act obligations and leaving the field wide open for the mostly unregulated fintechs to lend to historically marginalized communities.

A combination of weak regulation and predatory, discriminatory lending sent us spinning into the Great Recession 13 years ago. It’s time to update our financial regulations to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

On the federal level, that means modernizing and expanding the Community Reinvestment Act to include fintechs, and modernizing regulations across the board to make sure these new, fast-growing firms don’t unfairly target communities of color and pose a risk to the whole economy.

But even before Congress acts, states can and should move on their own. Several states already have their own Community Reinvestment Act or similar laws — the latest was adopted last year in Illinois — and those that don’t should enact such laws now. States can also require data transparency and accountability.

We deserve a financial system that works for all, regardless of race or income. And we need to know that financial institutions — whether or not they call themselves banks — operate in a safe, nondiscriminatory manner. We cannot risk another financial disaster that hits vulnerable communities hardest. It’s time for the rules to catch up with reality.

New Report: Fintech Lenders – Not Banks – Dominate Mortgage Market, Regulations Must Catch Up

Fintech Lenders Have 2/3 of the Market but Aren’t Regulated Like Banks

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – Fintech (financial technology) lenders, referred to officially as nonbanks, now dominate the home mortgage market in California and across the U.S., a new report from The Greenlining Institute finds. But these businesses are not subject to the same rules as banks, meaning their positive potential could be outweighed by risks of discrimination and threats to the stability of the financial system and housing market.

A Fair Financial System: Regulating Fintech and Nonbank Lenders, released today, lays out these risks and proposes new regulatory approaches at both the state and federal levels.

“The U.S. mortgage market has shifted radically since 2009,” said lead author Rawan Elhalaby, The Greenlining Institute’s Senior Economic Equity Program Manager. “Two thirds of mortgages aren’t written by banks, but by fintech lenders who don’t have to follow the same rules as banks. We know almost nothing about their lending patterns or whether or not they discriminate, and there are reasons for concern about their stability. It’s time for financial regulations to catch up to reality.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • Fintech lenders now write two thirds of U.S. mortgages, a 660% increase in market share since 2009. The top three mortgage lenders in California are all nonbanks.
  • We don’t know how this shift in the industry is impacting redlined communities and borrowers of color because of a lack of transparency and reporting requirements. In particular, fintech lenders — which have no branches and take no deposits — are not subject to the federal Community Reinvestment Act, a landmark anti-redlining law designed to encourage banks to invest in underserved communities.
  • All this is occurring as traditional banks close branches in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, effectively abandoning their CRA obligations. This has led to increased market share for nonbanks among Black and Latino households.
  • The lack of transparency and reporting requirements raises serious questions about the financial stability of fintech lenders. There are few overarching federal regulations covering nonbank mortgage lenders, which tend to have little cash on hand and large amounts of debt.

The report offers several policy recommendations to address these concerns, calling on Congress to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act to cover fintech lenders, and states to act quickly. The report outlines how states like California can enact state-level regulations, including requiring increased lending transparency through the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, as well as passing a state version of the Community Reinvestment Act. In Illinois, the most recent state to pass a state-level CRA, advocates partnered with legislators to advance a racial equity slate that included these crucial regulations for nonbank lenders.

“State and federal regulations need a drastic overhaul to keep up with these trends and avoid another financial crisis caused by predatory mortgage lending,” said Debra Gore-Mann, President and CEO of The Greenlining Institute. ”These institutions are targeting communities that have been historically denied access to financial products and services from traditional banks. If they continue to be unregulated, that house of cards will collapse on Black and Brown communities first and worst.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

Sacramento wants 3,800 car charging stations by 2025. Here’s where they’re needed

By Isabella Bloom
The Sacramento Bee

Gov. Gavin Newsom last year set California on a path to eliminate the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, leading cities like Sacramento to draw up plans for tomorrow’s electric vehicle drivers.

By 2025, the city of Sacramento wants 75,000 zero-emission vehicles on the road, according to a city plan adopted in 2017.

It estimates it needs 3,800 charging stations to support that kind of fleet. As of 2020, the city had installed fewer than 700 charging stations. Right now, drivers can find electric vehicle charging stations clustered at state buildings, near freeways and at community centers.

Fewer of them are in rural zip codes or in zip codes with higher percentages of non-white residents, like Sacramento’s Fruitridge Manor and North Natomas neighborhoods. Income is not a strong indicator of station distribution.“A lot of the charging infrastructure to date has been concentrated where a lot of the jobs are near state offices and a lot of the other business activity in the central city of downtown,” said Jennifer Venema, the interim Climate Action Lead for the City of Sacramento. Venema has worked on zero-emission vehicle projects for the city over the past four years.

Her office is focusing on increasing access and installing more public charging stations for low-income and disadvantaged communities.

That’s where they’re most needed, said Gil Tal, the director of the Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis. He says more charging stations and more electric cars could reduce harmful vehicle emissions in neighborhoods that are already marked by poor health.

“Disadvantaged communities many times suffer from bad air quality because they are next to traffic routes or next to industry or just less desirable locations,” Tal said. “Electrifying these areas are, I think, higher priority, not just because of greenhouse gases, but also because of local air pollution.”

Tal said the state needs public charging station infrastructure readily in place as lower-income buyers take interest in electric vehicles. The California Energy Commission estimates the state needs 1.2 million public and shared private chargers by 2030 to support the number of electric vehicles expected to be on the road by then.

“I think that the idea with the infrastructure is not that there are so many cars out there that people in disadvantaged communities are buying today, but it will come soon,” Tal said. “And we would like to be ready with the infrastructure.”

Where is electric vehicle infrastructure lacking?

People who own electric vehicles do most of their charging at home. A study from the University of California, Davis Institute of Transportation Studies shows 86% of electric vehicle owners rely primarily on home charging and 53% use home charging exclusively.

However, many low-to-moderate-income people who live in apartments or affordable housing may find installing and accessing charging infrastructure is more complicated. They can’t simply tap into an outlet in a garage.A major gap in electric vehicle infrastructure is in introducing more chargers in low-income communities and multifamily households, like apartment complexes and townhouses.

“One of the biggest barriers right now is being able to affordably install charging infrastructure at multi-unit dwellings,” said Leslie Aguayo, the climate equity program manager with the Greenlining Institute. “And most low-income and middle-income folks live in apartments. That’s like the one place we haven’t been able to crack the code on how to accessibly install charging infrastructure.”

Roseanna Torretto did not have access to a home charger when she first purchased a Tesla Model 3 for her 75th birthday in 2018. Torretto lives in a townhouse in Carmichael, which has two charging stations for a population of over 62,000 people.

“When I first bought the car, I didn’t have the charging connector installed yet, so I charged the car at work,” Torretto said.

Torretto works as a software specialist at the California Department of Technology, and in 2018 her workplace had four charging stations. She said that because employees had to share these chargers, she couldn’t get a full charge at work. Each electric car owner had a two-hour limit and would have to move their car when their time was up, gaining about 50 miles of charge in that time. Each unit at Torretto’s complex has a covered parking spot, but no garage. She has since received approval from the California Homeowners Association to install a Tesla wall connector to her patio.

Thank If not for the installation of the Tesla charger, Torretto said she would have just plugged in her vehicle to an ordinary wall socket.

“It would just take a much longer time,” she said.

Charging is much easier for people in single-family homes.

Wayne Robinson lives in the foothills of east Sacramento in El Dorado County’s Cameron Park, which has two charging stations for a population of over 30,000 people. But Robinson lives in a single-family home with a Level 2 charging station, so he says charging his car is like charging his mobile phone each night.“I just plug it back in at night and then it’s full in the morning,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of like having a car that always has a full tank of gas.”

What is Sacramento doing to fill the gap?

Several efforts are underway to increase access to infrastructure for low-income communities and multifamily households. They include installing stations at community centers, offering grants for infrastructure projects and requiring developers to install them in certain new projects.

The city recently received a $1.8 million grant from the California Energy Commission that will allow it to provide Level 2 chargers at 13 community centers and libraries, primarily in low-income neighborhoods, including Coloma and Colonial Heights. Level 2 chargers are the most popular charger for home and public fueling and add about 14 to 35 miles per hour of charging.

“The real goal is to ensure that no community is left behind and that we’re specifically providing public charging options for those that may not be able to charge at home,” Venema said.The city has also partnered with programs like Envoy and Green Tech to introduce more electric cars and stations to low-income neighborhoods. Envoy, an electric car share program, provided 90 electric cars and 90 charging stations to 45 Sacramento locations, 73% of which are in low-income communities.

Green Tech installed a mobility hub in Del Paso Heights, where 68% of people live twice below the federal poverty level. The Del Paso mobility hub, launched in 2020, provides an electric shuttle bus for students, community car share, a solar canopy and charging stations.

Renters may find it difficult to justify installing chargers and investing in property owned by someone else, which is why, Venema said, the city wants to create incentives for landlords to install charging stations.

“We’re very conscious in terms of raising property value,” Venema said. “We don’t want that to impact or challenge people’s ability to continue to rent, even though the city has rental protections.”

For instance, an ordinance passed by the Sacramento City Council in April 2021 will require new nonresidential and multifamily developments to include electric vehicle infrastructure.“By adopting that ordinance now, council is setting the signal and the intention to the development community,” Venema said. “But the ordinance only focuses on new buildings and hence that goes back to the issue of how do we fill those existing gaps, especially with the focus on multifamily tenants.”

Phillip Reese of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

White House touts broadband part of new infrastructure deal

By Cyrus Farivar
NBC News

The White House announced Wednesday that its “once-in-a-generation investment in our infrastructure” would include a part dedicated to improving Americans’ access to the internet.

Later, the Senate passed a critical test vote by 67-32, suggesting possible passage of the entire infrastructure bill in the coming days.

“This bipartisan deal is the most important investment in public transit in American history and the most important investment in rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “It will deliver high speed internet to every American.”

Neither precise details of the broadband section nor the text of the whole bill has been released yet. The White House said in a related statement that a $65 billion investment for broadband, out of $550 billion in new spending, would ensure that “every American has access to reliable high-speed internet,” comparing it to the electrification of the country a century ago.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Department, published a comprehensive interactive online map last month. The document shows how poorer, more rural and tribal areas generally don’t have affordable broadband access.

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. While 25 Mbps is generally sufficient for most uses, when such a connection is shared via a wireless connection and transmitted to multiple people using different devices, real-world speeds — particularly when videoconferencing is involved — are often slower and insufficient.

A draft copy of the 68-page broadband section of the infrastructure bill obtained by NBC News would establish a de facto minimum standard of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up, and it would require that internet service providers have an eye toward even higher speeds, most likely through fiber optic service. In addition, it would require the federal government to establish a single website where consumers could determine whether they are eligible for low-cost broadband.

“The main takeaway for me is that it’s oriented around future-proofing infrastructure, and that’s a good thing,” said Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Vinhcent Le, a technology equity lawyer with the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy organization in Oakland, California, was part of a coalition of pro-consumer groups that lobbied the bipartisan working group in recent months.

“It doesn’t rock the boat too much, but it does give things that advocates have been asking for: better mapping data and digital inclusion money, helping pay down the cost of broadband,” he said. “It’s going to help people get signed up.”

Most major ISPs have low-cost programs, but critics have said that they aren’t always widely known and that the speed floor has historically been too low.

In February, Comcast doubled the speed of its low-cost program, known as Internet Essentials, from 25 Mbps to 50 Mbps. Comcast, the country’s largest internet service provider, owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.

“We’ve always offered the same super fast speeds across an entire city when we build out and offer gig speeds across nearly our entire footprint of 55 million plus homes,” Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokesperson, said by email. Fitzmaurice declined to comment on the White House announcement until legislative language has been released.

“We’ve been part of a coalition which has called for a permanent broadband program to help low-income households, and have been participating in the emergency program including allowing customers to use it to access any tier of broadband service,” she said.

The White House is also pushing to pass the Digital Equity Act, a bill to create “a permanent program to help more low-income households access the internet.”

NCTA, the lobbying organization for telecommunications companies, said it was generally in favor of the deal.

“Connecting every American to robust and reliable broadband infrastructure is a goal we share and our industry has spent decades building and upgrading networks that now reach 80% of U.S. homes with superfast gigabit speeds,” Brian Dietz, a spokesperson for NCTA, said by email.

“While we still need to see the details of the bill, we are encouraged that the bipartisan infrastructure deal directly addresses two critical elements of reaching universal connectivity — dedicating funding first and foremost to those regions without any broadband service, and providing financial assistance to help low-income Americans subscribe to this critical service,” Dietz said.

Unpaid utility bills? California will pay off $2 billion to avoid shutoffs

By Jackie Botts
CalMatters

Two years ago the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power shut off electricity at Will Hollman’s home in the San Fernando Valley, forcing the family to rely on a gasoline generator. In late June of this year, the department disconnected the water, too — despite a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs that Gov. Gavin Newsom recently extended through Sept. 30.

Hollman, his 10-year-old son and his 16-year-old stepdaughter endured 11 days of temperatures in the high 90s to low 100s without water or power. For 11 days, they camped out in air-conditioned grocery stores, Starbucks or his truck. They couchsurfed and used friends’ showers. Hollman played it off with the kids as some kind of fun obstacle course.

He called the department’s customer service, and said a representative told him that he must pay off his utility debt of $9,064.13 — largely consisting of charges that Hollman disputes as erroneous — before water or power could be restored.

“It’s been demoralizing, humiliating,” Hollman said on the eighth day. “I have a history of paying my bills, working, being a good provider. You… start having feelings of failure as a parent.”

Ultimately the state’s water agency convinced the LA department to turn on Hollman’s water.

Those 11 days without water or power are a window into what could happen to millions of Californians in the coming months and years, depending on how swiftly and effectively the state distributes relief.

Official estimates of unpaid water and energy bills accumulated during the pandemic verge on $2.7 billion, affecting a few million Californians — and those figures have been growing rapidly.

The state has so far prioritized rent relief — keeping people housed — over utilities relief. A spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Rent Relief program said that of the $158 million distributed as of July 16, less than $40,000 had gone to utilities relief. Utility debt makes up about 6% of all assistance requested so far.

On July 11, lawmakers revealed a plan to use one-time federal relief money to address the debt. The deal is a patchwork of new programs to forgive $2 billion of utilities debt and old programs to help households chip away at the rest, with a wide range of eligibility criteria and timelines. But it doesn’t extend current shutoff moratoria past Sept. 30.

“We’re laser-focused on getting this assistance out the door as quickly as possible,” Newsom said in a statement about ongoing rent relief and the utilities relief plan. He has signed the energy bills relief into law, while the water bills relief still awaits his signature.

This will be an important “reboot” to protect Californians and utility companies, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“You don’t want people to be shut off from basic services,” Hanak said, “But it’s also a hit to the entire community if utilities aren’t able to balance their books, because that can have all sorts of ripple effects on the abilities of water and electrical systems to run well.”

When it comes to forgiving California’s utility debt, key questions remain:

  • Will $2 billion be nearly enough?
  • Can the money be distributed quickly enough to prevent shutoffs?

“For public health and safety, it’s important for people to have roofs over their heads, clean water and power. Those are all pieces of the puzzle,” Hanak said.

A Catch-22 at LA’s utilities department?

Hollman’s utilities troubles began well before the pandemic.

After opening an account in 2017, he began receiving unusually high electricity charges topping $1,000 — even during months when no one was living in the house because he was staying with his parents — which Hollman attributes to billing errors by the LA utility.

Under financial stress following a messy separation, Hollman said he let the bills pile up.

By early 2019, his unpaid balance had mounted to nearly $9,000. He applied for $2,000 of assistance from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services to keep service on. But the water agency insisted on full payment of his bill, according to correspondence from his social worker reviewed by CalMatters. In March of 2019, the department shut off his power due to non-payment. He bought a generator.

Following the power shutoff, the electricity charges continued, labeled as “unmetered estimated consumption” in bills reviewed by CalMatters, meaning the utility generated them without checking Hollman’s meter. In December 2019, a customer service representative credited his account with several thousand dollars, but, according to Hollman, told him that the department couldn’t stop the continuing energy charges or issue more credits until a technician read his meter.

Which required that the power be turned back on.

Which couldn’t happen until he paid off the debt.

As Hollman tells it, he was caught in a Catch-22.

In April 2020, amid the first pandemic surge, the LA utilities department closed Hollman’s account with an unpaid balance of $9,064.13, meaning that he couldn’t open a new account until he paid off the debt, which could affect his credit score or be taken to small claims court. But, Hollman said, a representative promised that water would stay on while the pandemic lasted. For over a year, it did — until a technician arrived unannounced in late June.

The LA utilities department tells a somewhat different story. In a statement, a department spokesperson said that it had disconnected Hollman’s water in October 2017 and power in March 2019 because Hollman had made no payments since opening his account in March 2017. The spokesperson said the department turned off his water twice more after detecting unauthorized use, in April 2019 and again this past June, when it “came to light to LADWP… that water service had illegally been turned back on.”

While declining to comment on the high “unmetered estimated consumption” charges or Hollman’s apparent Catch-22, the spokesperson said the department restored water service in early July “in an attempt to work out a payment plan… for the water and power that was consumed since 2017.”

Hollman disputes that he illegally reconnected the water, saying it never stopped flowing and that he never received notices it would be shut off. He said that a water department representative told him last week that he had to pay a third of his outstanding bill — money that he said he doesn’t have — before he can qualify for a payment plan.

Mounting debt, and shutoffs despite protections

Hollman is not alone. Despite shutoff protections, the California State Water Resources Control Board has received 308 reports of water disconnections during the pandemic. No agency tracks power shutoffs.

A spokesperson said the state water board got water restored in each case, including for Hollman.

In February, the state water board estimated that 1.6 million households were late on water bills that totalled over $1 billion across California, and were growing quickly. The California Municipal Utilities Association estimated unpaid energy bills at publicly owned utilities topped $300 million, while close to 4 million customers of investor-owned utilities were behind on energy bills, totaling $1.4 billion, as of late June, according to a California Public Utilities Commission spokesperson.

Many people don’t know that they are still protected from shutoffs. Some no longer are.

When the state reopened in mid-June, Newsom quietly extended the moratorium on water shutoffs to Sept. 30. One water system has already said that it will resume shutoffs the next day.

The California Public Utilities Commission also extended the power shutoff moratorium to Sept. 30, days before it was set to expire on June 30. But that only applies to customers of investor-owned utilities, leaving the quarter of Californians served by publicly owned utilities vulnerable, said Mad Stano, an energy equity attorney at the Greenlining Institute, a racial justice nonprofit.

LA’s water department is the largest publicly owned utility in the United States. During the pandemic, customers’ unpaid bills there increased more than 10-fold, from $37 million accrued during 2019 to $400 million accrued during the first eight months of the pandemic, according to a state Water Board report. More than one in five customers behind on bills had debt over $1,000. The department has voluntarily chosen to extend its own moratorium on shutoffs for nonpayment, according to a spokesperson, but has not yet announced an end date. It has also not publicized that decision.

Deborah Bell-Holt didn’t know.

Her utilities bill ballooned to $19,308.45 during the pandemic as her South Los Angeles household grew to include 12 children, grandchildren and friends.

Bell-Holt assumed that disconnections would start June 30, when evictions were set to begin had lawmakers not made a last-minute deal. She scrambled to send the department $500 in late May and $200 on June 25th, hoping a few payments would stave off shutoffs. To afford that, she said she took out a $500 loan with 347% interest, which she’s still paying back.

Bell-Holt said that if she’d known she wasn’t at risk on June 30, “I wouldn’t put us in a hole like that.”

The state and utilities haven’t done enough to inform Californians about protections, Stano contends. “The state needs to require… communications to people so they don’t make financial decisions that they don’t have to make,” they said.

Living without water or power

On Hollman’s third day this summer without water or power, it hit 100 degrees outside. Inside the house was even hotter.

Hollman and his kids are used to life without air conditioning in one of California’s hottest regions. Their generator — which requires $10 of fuel per day, on average — only powers the lights, electronics and refrigerator. Normally, Hollman might cool the house by hosing down the roof and outdoor plants.

Instead, the family lingered at McDonald’s. “It becomes very difficult to keep your spirit up, but you have to for your kids,” Hollman said. “You can’t crack.”

On the fifth day, his son thanked Hollman for the best day ever, after the two spent the afternoon cutting through the heat on skateboards.

On the ninth morning, Hollman ran out of generator fuel. He reminded his kids not to open the refrigerator, so the food wouldn’t spoil. He knew his car’s radiator was low, but he was out of coolant and bottled water. He crossed his fingers that the old truck wouldn’t overheat on the way to the gas station. It did.

“It’s a dance that people shouldn’t have to f—ing do,” Hollman said.

Relief on the way for California utility bills

Theoretically, lawmakers’ new deal could prevent more people from that dance.

In May, Newsom proposed $2 billion to relieve utilities debt. Legislators agreed to the price tag in June, but continued negotiating the distribution plan in private.

The result is two budget bills that would create new programs that pay utilities directly to forgive customer debt accrued during the pandemic, prioritizing those at greatest risk of shutoffs. The California Arrearage Payment Program would forgive $994 million in energy debt, while the California Water and Wastewater Arrearage Payment Program would forgive $985 million.

In both cases, utilities must opt in. They must also offer all customers with pandemic debt a payment plan that would protect them from shutoffs as long as they enroll and stay current on the plan. Plus, the first forbids energy utilities from disconnecting power to a customer for 90 days after applying forgiveness to their account. Neither bill extends the shutoff moratoria, though the Public Utilities Commission has extended a moratorium on shutoffs for a segment of water utilities, which cover about 16% of customers.

The pending legislation also funnels an unspecified amount of federal relief money into two existing programs for which households must be income-eligible and apply for the assistance.

It’s unclear whether Hollman will be eligible for the programs, given that he accrued his debt before the COVID-19 pandemic. He may be at risk of another water shutoff soon.

A repeat of rent relief troubles?

The state has created countless new assistance programs during the pandemic — many mired by delaysbureaucracy and scandals.

The state’s COVID rent relief program is one example. As CalMatters reported, lengthy online applications available in too few languages initially blocked access to vulnerable renters, while distribution has been painfully slow.

The California utility bill debt forgiveness programs proposed last week sidestep some of these problems by requiring utilities, instead of customers, to apply, and by not requiring customers to prove eligibility. Advocates cheered that choice, but worried lawmakers didn’t go far enough to prevent shutoffs.

The water program legislation requires the water board to start distributing funds by Nov. 1. But that’s a month after the shutoff moratorium ends, said Jennifer Clary, California state director of nonprofit Clean Water Action. “I’m a little concerned about that gap,” she said.

Stano of the Greenlining Institute said that the bill language doesn’t prevent publicly owned utilities from shutting off power right now. They said it also doesn’t provide enough guidance to ensure that payment plans are sufficiently accessible and reasonable to keep people safe from shutoffs — especially given that only about two-thirds of the debt is expected to be forgiven.

“We will not be celebrating anything until the risk of disconnection is removed,” said Stano, who is pushing for the energy shutoff moratorium to be extended past Sept. 30.

A life-long Democrat, Hollman finds his faith in government assistance tested. He says he’s never relied much on it until his work as a telecommunications salesman for brick-and-mortar businesses came to a sudden halt last March. He applied for unemployment benefits so that he could focus on overseeing his children’s virtual schooling without any electricity coming to the house, but the checks don’t cover rent, food and generator fuel. He borrowed money, sold assets and made partial rent payments.

Like millions of Californians, Hollman has run into unemployment benefits snafus.

The last one happened several nights after the water department turned the water back on. Hollman received his unemployment payment to his Bank of America unemployment benefits account, but said when he tried paying bills the next morning, the money had already been withdrawn. He said he filed reports of identity theft with police and the Employment Development Department.

Hollman also said he called his landlord to tell him he wouldn’t be able to make July’s rent — and that he hasn’t heard back about the $5,000 in rent relief he’s applied for from the city of Los Angeles. He said he planned to find work this summer, but has been in crisis mode since the water shutoff.

“It can’t be understated,” Hollman texted, “how delicate the balance of survival is.”

California’s ‘historic’ broadband bill passes key Senate committee

By Cyrus Farivar
NBC News

The California Senate Budget Committee passed a comprehensive bill Wednesday aimed at expanding broadband infrastructure across the state, setting up all-but-certain passage in the state Assembly and the Senate.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced his support for the bill this week, calling it “historic,” but it was unknown when precisely he would sign it into law.

If the bill is enacted, the state would spend $5.25 billion on broadband expansion, including $3.25 billion on a so-called open-access middle-mile network. The wonky term describes the often expensive network infrastructure connecting the so-called internet “backbone” to the “last mile,” where a local internet service provider, or ISP, connects to individual households. The “open-access” term means both public and private ISPs would be able to connect equally.

While there such publicly funded networks in other states, the California version would be likely to be a much greater state-level network than has been built anywhere else in the country. Broadband experts say such middle-mile networks can encourage new ISPs to build faster and less expensive access to the internet to compete with existing providers.

It can be difficult and expensive to connect the landing stations, sometimes called global connection points, to local providers. The problem is often worsened in poorer and rural areas because large ISPs may not see them as profitable.

In an op-ed published Wednesday in Capitol Weekly, a state government-focused publication, the head of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry group, asked that the bill be amended to focus largely on “unserved” areas where not even a single provider offers minimal broadband service. AT&T made similar comments in a letter to the governor last month.

But Vinhcent Le, a technology equity lawyer with the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy organization in Oakland, said large ISPs see the bill as a “huge deal” that could spur new competition with incumbent providers, like AT&T, even in major urban areas.

“I think this is something that should have been done 10 years ago,” he said.

During the hearing Wednesday, Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents Marin County, north of San Francisco, and a coastal stretch to the Oregon border, said the state cannot rely on private companies to expand access statewide.

“We’re not in it for the profit. This state is in it for the people,” he said. “More competition will bring down the prices for everyone in this state.”

California’s nonpartisan legislative research arm, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, found last month that poorer households across the state largely correlate with lower broadband adoption rates.

Similarly, the broader American digital divide was starkly illustrated last month when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration published a comprehensive map showing that many poor, rural and tribal areas of the country lack quality and affordable service.

“California is blessed with having a lot of global connection points,” said Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital advocacy group.

“What the state is designing to do is bridge the capacity gap between the backbone to all communities,” Falcon said. “If global connections are LAX [Los Angeles International Airport], then this is building the way for people to take a freeway to get to the world.”