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Power Bills Rising, 'My Clients Are Panicking'

Hydro costs push many low-income British Columbians to edge, say support experts.

Andrew MacLeod 1 Jun

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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Stacey Tyers manages counselling support services in Terrace and sits on the city's council. 'We are now seeing a much larger number of people with BC Hydro issues.'

Advocates who work closely with people surviving on low incomes have testified to the British Columbia Utilities Commission that it is increasingly common for their clients to struggle to pay the rising cost of electricity, often with severe consequences.

"My clients are aware of the recent and upcoming rate increases, and they are panicking," said Stacey Tyers, the manager of counselling support services at the Terrace and District Community Services Society.

Throughout 12 years of anti-poverty work Tyers has seen clients with trouble paying their electricity bills, she said. "It is definitely getting worse though," said Tyers, who also is a Terrace city councillor. "We are now seeing a much larger number of people with BC Hydro issues."

Keith Simmonds, the co-ordinating minister at the Duncan United Church, said that over the past 18 months more people have sought help from the church because they can't afford to pay their BC Hydro bills. "Inability to pay rising hydro costs has a huge impact on low-income people. Many people have to choose between paying rent, purchasing food and paying their BC Hydro bill."

"Contacts about BC Hydro issues have definitely increased in recent years," said Audrey Schwartz, the executive director of Active Support Against Poverty in Prince George. About 79 per cent of the people who turn to the agency for help with tenancy and housing are First Nations, she said.

"Our office saw a significant spike in contacts about BC Hydro issues in 2014," said Stephen Portman, the advocacy lead at the Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria. "The increasing unaffordability of BC Hydro rates for our clients means that people are unable to pay their bills, and are more often disconnected."

The statements from six advocates from throughout B.C. are part of 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.

The Tyee reported this week on testimony the submission included from three people who were themselves struggling on low incomes to pay their BC Hydro bills. The document also includes statements from experts on poverty and utility pricing.

The utilities commission is reviewing the design of BC Hydro's rates and has a mandate from the provincial government that includes evaluating the current rate structures to ensure they are fair.

Losing power bad for health

According to the testimony from the advocates, high BC Hydro rates contribute to poor health, families losing custody of their children, and difficult choices. One advocate described providing candles to a disabled senior so that he would have light after BC Hydro disconnected his electricity.

Emma Gauvin is the social work team lead for the STOP HIV/AIDS program at Vancouver Coastal Health, which provides services to "Aboriginal people, LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and two-spirited) communities, youth, immigrant and refugee communities, and people with mental health and/or addiction issues."

"We work with people who are HIV positive, and the majority of our clients struggle with addictions and mental health issues and have low incomes and live in unstable housing," her testimony said.

Trouble paying BC Hydro bills is a frequent problem, Gauvin said. "BC Hydro issues relate to the social determinants of health, and interfere with our ability to provide services to our clients," she said. "If someone is cut off by BC Hydro, then their lack of electricity becomes a priority. If our clients do not have electricity, this can derail treatment plans for other health issues."

Clients who lose electricity in their homes risk having refrigerated and frozen food spoil, she said. "Many of our clients are prone to opportunistic infections, so not having access to proper nutrition can affect their health." Also, she said, two common drugs for HIV need to be refrigerated.

Skipping medicine to pay bills

"When it comes to low-income communities, every time there is a rate increase, you are taking food out of someone's mouth," said Tyers in Terrace.

She described one client who lived in a trailer and faced a monthly BC Hydro bill of $300, a significant part of her budget. "She got to the point where she stopped buying her blood pressure medication so that she could keep up with her bills."

Others avoid using power, Tyres said. "I know of many people that keep their heat well below where it should be in order to reduce costs," she said. "It is not healthy or safe for those people or their families. No one else would keep their heat that low."

BC Hydro says it's not the Crown agencies problem when families have their electricity disconnected and no longer have heat, light or hot water, Tyers said. "However, I have seen the Ministry of Children and Family Development remove children from a home, citing lack of electricity along with other reasons for removal of the children."

People often get behind on their bills in the winter when they are higher, she said. "If someone is heating their house with electricity in the winter in a northern community, the bills can be enormous. It is much darker and colder here in the winter than in other parts of the province, and people use light and heat a lot more."

Simmonds, the minister in Duncan, said many of the families his church works with worry that their children will be taken into government care if they can't afford to pay for electricity for heat or to refrigerate food.

"In the region where I live and work, a particularly high number of kids are apprehended by the Ministry of Children and Family Development," he said. "I understand that lack of electricity could lead [the ministry] to consider removing children from a home if the weather is cold for a longer period of time and the children's parents or guardians could not afford to pay their electricity bill."

Stagnant incomes, rising rates

People with stagnant incomes struggle to pay their BC Hydro bills, Simmonds said. "Seniors with pensions that seemed adequate in the past cannot afford current BC Hydro rates, nor can those living on provincial and on reserve welfare rates that have been frozen since 2007."

Already the available assistance isn't enough to cover bills, including those for utilities, he said. "Low-income people we see will absolutely be unable to cope with increases in BC Hydro rates without receiving a discount on their electricity bills or a corresponding increase in income (income assistance and disability assistance, and minimum wage)."

The high cost of electricity is a problem for people with low incomes, said Schwartz in Prince George. "Low-income people do not have a financial cushion that allows them to pay huge bills in a way that will actually make the problem go away," she said. "Even if they manage to avoid disconnection one month, the rates mean they could be in the same place with the next bill."

In Prince George, in the winter, it is impossible to survive without heat, she said. "For our clients with electric heating, this is a life and death crisis."

Many of the cheaper places to rent in the northern city are electrically heated, she said. "This creates problems because low-income people move in because the rent is cheaper, and they don't realize until they move in that electricity costs can be $300 per month."

Often it is low-income, single-parent families in that situation, Schwartz said. "Facing large bills and disconnection because you cannot pay your bills is so stressful for people," she said. "Our clients are people who are stressed to begin with, given their lack of financial stability. Every penny counts."

Worrying about making ends meet is all consuming for many people, Schwartz said. "I cannot imagine how single parents deal with figuring out how to pay for these increasing costs, and still manage to sit down and help their children with their schoolwork."

Choosing between food and electricity

"The impact of not having electricity should be obvious, but is particularly problematic when someone has a disability, or has small children and due to a lack of electricity is unable to cook," said Portman at Together Against Poverty Society, a non-profit in Victoria that helps more than 5,000 low-income people per year.

"Being unable to afford electricity means not being able to clean laundry, shower and prepare for work, and heat your home in the middle of the winter -- especially since a lot of low-income housing in the Victoria area has electric baseboard heating," he said. "Getting cut off has a big impact very quickly."

Many low-income clients are unaware that BC Hydro is planning further rate increases, Portman said. "The people we serve will clearly be unable to cope with additional rate increases. Most clients that present with BC Hydro issues are already using their food money to pay for BC Hydro -- further increases mean less food in the cupboard. Keeping the power on is a tradeoff with feeding themselves and their families."

He noted that there have been no increases to income assistance rates in B.C. since 2007. "Each year people become more desperate trying to cope with increasing pressures on their income. This amplifies the impact of BC Hydro rate increases and the resulting competition with meeting basic needs."

Patty Edwards is the constituency assistant for Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser and has been helping people with tenancy problems for 25 years in Port Alberni. In the past decade more of the issues have been related to BC Hydro she said.

"These problems seem to be coming up more and more now," she said. "A lot of people just cannot afford the big BC Hydro bills they are receiving. Many of my clients are making their monthly payments and just getting by, and when BC Hydro rates go up, they can't keep up."

Lighting with candles

Many people with low-income renters move frequently and don't realize how big their BC Hydro bills will be in a new home, Edwards said. "I often see clients that have moved into a new place and did not realize it was poorly insulated. There are lots of pre-war houses in this area that are poorly insulated and hard to heat -- people move in because the rent is cheaper, and are blindsided when they get a massive bill."

She testified she recently helped an elderly person with mental and physical disabilities who depends on disability benefits from the province. "The client is on an equal payment plan with BC Hydro, and the ministry pays the BC Hydro bill directly," she said. "The client arranged to have the ministry pay the BC Hydro bills directly as the client is unable to cope with bills."

But when BC Hydro reconciled the client's actual usage with what he'd paid, the utility found he owed them money. "He was hit with a very large bill, which my client was unable to pay," Edwards said. "His electricity was disconnected, and he didn't understand why.... Even though the client had never missed a payment, he was cut off."

The power stayed off for him for about six months. "He had no light or heat," she said. "I took him candles to use for lighting at one point, and a neighbour gave him an extension cord to their house so he could use his oven and fridge."

Eventually someone in the community paid his bill so he could get reconnected, she said.

"Those who cannot afford their BC Hydro bills get so beaten down and disheartened," Edwards said. "The stress can exacerbate their disabilities, and for those that end up getting disconnected, living without electricity has huge health impacts."

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."

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 cutoffs set by Statistics Canada, around $32,000 a year for a family of four depending on what size community they live in.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy

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