$0 Campaign Against Utility Shutoffs Wins $1.48 Billion in Relief

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Bloomington-Normal Afrosocialist Chair Trevin Gaffney (left) and #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign Lead Allan Max Axelrod (right) in front of the Bloomington City Hall sign after the Committee of the Whole unanimously passed an initiative on utility shutoffs

While there are large movements to cancel rents and mortgages across the country, such as Rent Strike 2020 and the COVID-19 + Homes Guarantee demands, there are comparably smaller movements to protect the integrity of those demands. As The Intercept, among other sources, has stated, utility shutoffs amount to de-housing people without it being counted as an eviction. The impetus of campaigns to stop utility shutoffs is to keep people safely housed. Such campaigns exist in Iowa, Tennessee, and Illinois, led by Sierra Club, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and myself, respectively.

In Illinois, the #NoAmerenShutoffs campaign is a zero-budget, grassroots, all-volunteer coalition spanning the state of Illinois, from the north in Waukegan to the south in Carbondale, and from the east in Champaign to the west in Belleville. Our coalition of four dozen member organizations so far includes a plethora of diverse Illinois-specific activist groups as well as affiliates of national organizations such as American Federation of Teachers, Communist Party USA, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Green Party, Indivisible, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Food and Water Watch, Sunrise Movement, and Standing Up for Racial Justice, as well as 12 chapters, organizing committees, branches, and YDSA sections of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The #NoAmerenShutoffs campaign started in July of 2020, after I personally received a utility shutoff notice, and Ameren Illinois tweeted to me their intention to resume utility shutoffs in Illinois starting on August 11. I sent out emails to as many potential ally organizations as I could, and our first meeting was July 21, 2020. While Ameren Missouri started utility shutoffs on August 3, we managed to push the start of utility shutoffs by Ameren Illinois back to September 24, and after that we won three statewide moratoria. Utility shutoffs only occurred because of the gap in the third statewide moratorium, which included means testing of the protection. As reported to the Illinois Commerce Commission by the utility corporations themselves, this resulted in over 81,000 households being disconnected in a span of nine weeks last fall.

With a $0 budget, we won a fourth statewide moratorium, announced on November 25, 2020, which reduced monthly power shutoffs from thousands to single digits. We are currently fighting for a fifth moratorium at the time of this writing. It is worth noting that the moratoria won have still allowed utility shutoffs to occur, due to their means-tested and voluntary nature. Means testing means that the protections are not automatic, as households have to apply and show proof that they meet the standards required in order to receive protection from water shutoffs, thus limiting the households that could be provided such protections. The voluntary status for the moratoria has meant that utilities could shut off households without the state government holding the corporations accountable for violating the moratorium. Both shortcomings have resulted in utility shutoffs for over 91,062 households, representing over 225,000 Illinoisans, based on the latest available data from the Illinois Commerce Commission.

As of the date of this writing, the #NoAmerenShutoffs campaign has passed four resolutions in three counties. These resolutions call on Governor J. B. Pritzker to enact a mandatory moratorium on utility shutoffs without means testing, and on the state senate to pass HB2877. This bill, if and when signed, would allocate $1.4 billion directly to housing and utility providers to relieve rent and utility debt as well as stop evictions and prohibit foreclosures until August 1, 2022, and July 31, 2021, respectively.

The first of the aforementioned resolutions passed unanimously in the Urbana City Council on April 12, 2021. On April 19, the Bloomington City Council unanimously passed an initiative on utility shutoffs, which is a sort of unpublished resolution. In response to these measures, Governor Pritzker passed Executive Order 2021–07, which unlocked $80 million in emergency utility assistance to 80,000 households who have received Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) support at least once in the last four years.

Pritzker’s executive order 2021–07 is insufficient both because, as Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s press release notes, there are 800,000 households behind on utility bills, and because the executive order does not enact a mandatory moratorium without means testing. In full acknowledgement of this insufficiency, the Bloomington City Council doubled down on their initiative by unanimously passing their first resolution on utility shutoffs on April 26. On April 27, the Macon County Democratic Party unanimously passed such a resolution as well. On April 28, the Champaign County Democratic Party, despite opposition, itself passed such a resolution. On April 29, the Illinois State Senate joined the Illinois House of Representatives in passing HB2877, as the resolutions demanded.

It is worth noting that the twenty-fourth and final state senator sponsoring HB2877 is Laura M. Murphy, who single-handedly blocked a previous version of HB2877 during the lame duck session of the Illinois legislature back in January. Had the bill passed back then, there would have been no reason to continue the #NoAmerenShutoffs campaign, as there would have been plenty of financial support to bring Illinoisans out of the debt that has been accrued during the pandemic.

The fight does not end with the passage of this bill, as we still have utility service being disconnected, while Illinois has a seven-day average caseload of over 2,000 coronavirus cases since March 26, 2021, and Pritzker has yet to sign HB2877 into law. As of April 1, this average coronavirus caseload was higher than the zenith of the first covid surge in Illinois a year ago. It is all too easy to forget that these higher caseloads exist as our state has opened up in many respects. This exact dynamic was forecast by Pritzker during his visit to Champaign on April 5, where he stated during his press conference, “I am hoping that we can overcome the surge for the very first time ever,” in reference to his opening up of the state while attempting to increase the daily vaccination rate of Illinoisans.

Instead of billionaire optimism, we need more rigorous public health policy which includes the resumption of a utility shutoffs moratorium. At the time of Pritzker’s statement, the seven-day average of vaccinations was over 100,000 Illinoisans a day. This average has now plummeted to below 83,000 daily vaccinations. The seven-day average of coronavirus deaths is the highest it has been since March 13, 2021, with dozens of Illinoisans continuing to die daily. These statistics confirm that the continued allowance of utility shutoffs is reckless and unwarranted. The governor himself acknowledged in Executive Order 2021-07 the risk utility shutoffs posed.

What’s more, the latest strain of coronavirus, which is still devastating India’s residents, has arrived in Michigan. The truth is that, while it is a heart-warming story to note that a $0 campaign for pandemic protections has unlocked potentially $1.48 billion in financial aid, we are running out of time to enact sufficiently preventative policy. This is why, across the state of Illinois, we are talking with additional bodies to issue resolutions and we are talking to another municipality about using Emergency Services and Disaster Agency powers to order the restoration of public utility service while the Governor continues to neglect the safety of Illinoisans.

Allan Axelrod is a member of the Champaign-Urbana Democratic Socialists of America, with a background in data aggregation for local government offices and activist groups. This is a follow-up to his article in the October, 2020 Public i.

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