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BC Politics

Lens on Poverty in BC: Pay Hydro or Go Hungry

Poorest rate payers plead for relief but ministry and corporation say no.

Andrew MacLeod 30 May

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Minister of Energy Bill Bennett: Unwilling to set a lower "lifeline rate" for low-income citizens, he asks: 'How low do [rates] need to be before someone says they're affordable?'

People living on low incomes cut back on buying food and other essentials so they can pay their electricity bills, according to testimony submitted to the British Columbia Utilities Commission as part of an ongoing hearing on BC Hydro rates.

"After I pay my rent, I have $110 per month to spend on other expenses," said Curtis Barton, a 57-year-old First Nations man living in Prince Rupert. "I have to choose between utilities and food. I have given up other expenses, including gas heating and internet in my home, and owning a car."

Christopher Shay, a 43-year-old man who lives in Coquitlam and has been deaf since birth, said he foregoes other essentials so he can pay his BC Hydro. "I do not have enough money left over each month to feed myself a healthy diet," he said. "I am six feet tall and I am often hungry."

The statements were included in a 341-page document the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre filed May 9 with the BCUC on behalf of seven anti-poverty and seniors' groups as part of BC Hydro's ongoing rate-design review in front of the utilities commission.

Launched by the provincial government, the review's mandate includes evaluating the current rate structures to ensure they are fair.

PIAC is proposing a suite of measures that would make electricity more affordable for some 170,000 families in B.C. who live below the low-income cut-offs set by Statistics Canada, around $32,000 a year for a family of four depending on what size community they live in.

Along with testimony from advocates for people living in poverty and experts on utility pricing, the Vancouver advocacy group's filing quotes low-income ratepayers who explain the financial hardship rising electricity rates cause them.

Rising rent leaves little

Shay, whose first language is American Sign Language, receives $906 a month in disability payments from the provincial Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation, according to his testimony for the BCUC submission.

"I want to work full time, I do not want to be on disability assistance," he said. "But I haven't been able to find ongoing, full-time employment. I do not have any assets or savings. I have debt, including student loans.

"I rent a one bedroom apartment in Coquitlam. The rent is currently $821, and will go up on June 1, 2016 to $845. My heat is included in my rent. My landlord has been increasing the rent every year. I have been on the waitlist for BC Housing for more than a year."

Shay said he pays about $20 a month for BC Hydro. "I manage to pay my BC Hydro bill by cutting back on other essential expenses, particularly in months where I have no or little employment income," he said.

"Aside from rent, I prioritize paying my BC Hydro and cell phone and internet bills, because... I rely on my cell phone and internet for communication and accessibility purposes and I need electricity to power my cell phone and internet. I also need to use lights, the fridge and stove."

He said he eats the same simple diet every day: toast, sandwiches and spaghetti. "In the past, I got food from food banks, but the food made me sick so I stopped using food banks."

Drafty house, electric heat

Conrad Dennis is a 46-year-old First Nations man living on $610 a month in social assistance payments in Williams Lake. He lives with his mother, who is almost 80 and who he believes receives a pension of about $1,000 a month, plus one other person.

"I live with my mum as she has health problems, and I want to help her out," he said. "I do not have any assets or savings. I also have quite a bit of debt."

He said he spends $350 on rent, $86 for BC Hydro and $100 for food. "Once my regular monthly expenses are paid, I am left with less than $100 for the month."

Their house in Williams Lake is older and is heated using electric baseboards and space heaters, he said.

"We have difficulty paying the BC Hydro bill because rates keep going up, and our income stays the same," Dennis said. "I am right against the wall in terms of expenses."

Sometimes when they couldn't pay BC Hydro, the electricity was disconnected. "The first time was about two years ago," he said. "The account was in my name, and I could not keep up with payments because I wasn't always getting contributions from the other people in the house in time. My mum managed to get us reconnected."

Recently the utility disconnected them again. "We had a $600 bill we couldn't pay," he said. "BC Hydro phoned and said we owed $700, but I got a letter after that that said that $400 was past due. I didn't understand how much we owed. I also didn't understand how we had a debt because the [income assistance] ministry was still paying my monthly amount directly."

Dennis said he applied for a crisis grant from the ministry, but it was denied. "My advocate helped me apply for a reconsideration of the ministry's decision, but the reconsideration decision took too long, and our power was disconnected before we had the ministry's decision."

He said his mother paid out of her pension to have the power reconnected. "Now we owe BC Hydro $30 for the reconnection fee as well."

Electricity is essential, especially since they heat with it, said Dennis. "It is really cold in Williams Lake in the winter. My mum is older, and she gets cold easily. She turns up the heat, and uses space heaters for a couple of hours each morning to heat up the house -- sometimes she forgets to turn them off. The space heaters really affect the electricity bills.

"Our house is really old and drafty, and it loses heat easily. All the cold air comes in where the vents used to be, when the house used to be heated by natural gas. We can't really turn the heat down or off to save money, because my mom has a bad heart and brittle bones.

"I find it so stressful, and I get worried. I don't care so much about phone or lights, but we need heat -- and my mom really needs a phone, lights, a fridge and heat."

BC Hydro rates keep going up, Dennis said. "I can't afford to pay any more for electricity," he said. "I saw a flyer from BC Hydro about upgrades, but I thought I had to buy and install things myself. I did put in some energy-efficient lightbulbs, but they don't seem to do anything to make my BC Hydro bills go down."

Thankful for mild winters

Chris Barton lives alone with his dog in Prince Rupert, and without assets or savings he survives on $610 a month in provincial social assistance payments.

"I have quite a bit of debt and I have tapped out my friends and family for borrowing more money," he said. "My rent is $500 per month, which leaves me $110 per month to spend on other expenses. My BC Hydro bill is $133 every two months."

He lives in an old, poorly insulated trailer that's heated with gas. "The gas has been cut off for about ten months now."

Barton's struggled to pay his BC Hydro bill since going on assistance. "I used to be a heavy equipment operator," he said. "However, I have been unemployed for a couple of years. There is a high rate of unemployment in Prince Rupert right now."

He said he owed BC Hydro $500 after his payments were reconciled with his actual electricity usage and he expected to be cut off again.

"The [income assistance] ministry has on two occasions assisted me with my BC Hydro bill in response to a disconnection notice," he said. "On one of those occasions, the ministry did not assist me quickly enough and my electricity was disconnected. I went several days without electricity before it was reconnected. The ministry has told me that it will not assist me again to prevent a utilities disconnection."

BC Hydro asks him to check his account online, something that's difficult since he doesn't have internet at home, Barton said. "It has been difficult to resolve issues with BC Hydro," he said. "I have requested paper copies of my month-to-month usage, but BC Hydro has not sent them."

Barton said he often lacks money for food. "I often do not have enough to eat," he said. "I use food banks to supplement my diet. My friends and family also give me food."

He stopped using gas for heat because he couldn't pay the bills. "I currently use an electric heater and blankets to stay warm," he said. "I am lucky that Prince Rupert has mild winters, because if I lived somewhere colder I would be in trouble."

Hydro cheap enough says minister

PIAC asked the BCUC to keep the statements from two other witnesses confidential to protect the privacy of their children, said Sarah Khan, a lawyer with PIAC. The statements speak to the difficulty single parents have trying to raise children while living on very low wages, she said.

PIAC's proposal would set a "lifeline rate" where low-income customers would have the basic charge of 17.64 cents per day waived and would pay a lower-than-normal rate of five cents per kilowatt hour for the first 250 kilowatt hours of electricity they use each month.

It would also provide up to $500 in emergency assistance to low-income households who have overdue BC Hydro payments and are facing disconnection. And it would create new terms and conditions for low-income customers, such as waiving security deposits, making more flexible payment arrangements, eliminating late payment fees and excusing reconnection fees.

Both the minister responsible, Bill Bennett, and BC Hydro president and CEO Jessica McDonald have told The Tyee that when it comes to affordability B.C. already has the third lowest rates for electricity in North America.

"Our view is the rates being the third lowest in North America are already affordable," Bennett said in a February interview. "How low do they need to be before someone says they're affordable? If you factor in inflation, people are paying the same thing for electricity in 2016 that they were paying in the 1990s. That sounds affordable to me."

NDP leader John Horgan in March reintroduced a private member's bill that would allow the BCUC to require a utility to provide a "lifeline rate" to low-income households. The Liberal controlled legislature failed to pass Horgan's bill.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, BC Politics

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