A community coalition in Knoxville, Tennessee launched a campaign on June 24 urging the Knoxville Utilities Board to deliver an affordability program for utility bills for low-income customers and to end utility disconnections for those with high bills. Data provided by the utility showed that the city’s black and brown communities face higher disconnection rates and spend a higher percentage of their income on utility bills.
The Knoxville Water and Energy for All campaign is made up of a coalition of faith-based, racial, labor and environmental organizations, including Appalachian Voices, the non-profit organization that produces The Appalachian Voice.
The Reverend Calvin Skinner of Mt. The Zion Baptist Church, a religious leader and campaign advocate, says energy insecurity – the struggle for people to maintain needed energy services in their homes – is often a life and death situation.
“A lot of people have to choose between paying for their utilities or paying for their drugs,” Skinner explains. “There are members of our community who depend on utilities for essential medical equipment and they are about to shut down. “
Between October 2020 and February 2021, KUB disconnected more than 3,000 Knoxville homes from power and water after the utility ended its moratorium on shutdowns in mid-October, according to data provided by the public service to independent researchers commissioned by the campaign. The researchers also found that non-white populations in Knoxville were 170% more likely to be disconnected from electricity and water than white communities with above-average poverty.
“Too many families, especially in black and brown communities, are disconnected from KUB utilities because they don’t have enough income to pay their bills,” said Bri Knisley, campaign manager for Appalachian Voices Tennessee , in a press release. “Punishing households that cannot pay the bills by disconnecting them is unfair, and it is an issue around which groups are rallying across the country. Access to energy and water is a human right, and we need a solution to the unaffordable bills and disconnections at KUB.
According to researchers, 23% of Knoxville households are “overburdened with utilities,” meaning they spend more than 10% of their income on utility bills. They found that 40% of black households served by KUB were overloaded with utilities, compared to 21% of white households. This racial disparity also appears in data showing that communities of color served by KUB owed twice as many delinquent accounts as white communities.
The Knoxville Water and Energy for All campaign calls on the KUB to adopt an income-based utility bill payment program called the Income Percentage Payment Plan. This program, which has been adopted by other states including Ohio, would reduce utility bills to 10% or less of a household’s income.
“We cannot afford to sleep with the alarms ringing that we are in a state of emergency,” Skinner said in a statement. “This emergency is fueled by economic and racial inequalities that our local government ignores. “
Skinner points out that energy insecurity was a problem before the Covid-19 pandemic.
“People were threatened with closures, evictions, even before the pandemic,” says Skinner. “If we were diligent and intentional in rooting out and alleviating energy insecurity issues before, we wouldn’t be so late now.
“And so with this pandemic, where the numbers have really gone up, in many ways out of control, we still have the opportunity to alleviate these issues,” he continues. “But if we don’t recognize the fact that they’re in this fundamental system that needs to be fixed and fixed, we’ll come back to it again and again.”