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How can utilities help socially vulnerable populations in the age of COVID-19?

August 20, 2020

By John Bucher

Utilities can apply past use cases to better position themselves for COVID-19 recovery funding and help their most vulnerable customers

The COVID-19 pandemic is providing a wake-up call around equity, reminding us that the socially vulnerable make up a significant portion of our population and their numbers are growing.

The aged and infirm, service industry workers, and those living paycheck-to-paycheck—some of whom are already more susceptible to the virus—are also the most impacted by shelter-in-place, healthy-at-home, and social distancing mandates. This pandemic is forcing more and more hourly workers into unemployment. This makes it even harder for them to afford, among other things, their utility bills.

As members of our communities, it is important to identify these populations and provide them with resources that are needed to help them become more resilient.

Assistance from utility providers can be especially valuable for the socially vulnerable in our communities.

Water and sewer utilities have been struggling with how to help their customers afford rising rates for years. Investments to replace aging infrastructure, mitigate combined sewer overflows, upgrade storm sewer systems (MS4), enhance flood protection and resiliency to climate change, and move toward becoming a smarter utility are pressures faced by most utility managers. Rate increases are necessary to cover these costs.

Many city and state governments have paused payment collections due to pandemic-related market conditions, causing more pressure and lost revenues to utilities. To avoid constant and severe rate increases, utilities often seek grants and loans from a variety of funding programs (e.g., HUD Community Development Block Grants, FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance, Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, and others). While it is not uncommon for these programs to apply metrics that specifically identify and address social vulnerability issues, now more than ever, we need to be diligent and thorough to consider it in our approach.

Longstanding efforts to support low-income and vulnerable populations, often referred to as Customer Assistance Programs (CAP), have even greater importance today. Our teams are helping utility providers in this endeavor, working with those providers to identify vulnerable populations that may need assistance. The CARES Act and subsequent stimulus and recovery packages will provide some relief, but other sources and actions will be required to meet the need.

Longstanding efforts to support low-income and vulnerable populations, often referred to as Customer Assistance Programs (CAP), have even greater importance today.

3 ways to effectively position your community for COVID-19 recovery funding

Whether required by funding programs or not, communities should focus more projects and programs on assisting socially vulnerable populations.

Here are some ways to increase the effectiveness of those efforts:

  1. Know where your socially vulnerable residents live: While they can live anywhere in your city, socially vulnerable populations tend to live in clusters—making it possible for single projects to have a big impact.
  2. Make sure the solution matches the problem: Sometimes the appropriate solution is not the most obvious, particularly with CAPs. Understanding the true drivers of financial hardship and designing programs and services to most directly impact socially vulnerable populations will help align project goals with needs.
  3. Understand the different funding programs: Many funding programs are focused on assisting socially vulnerable populations. However, they have different goals, criteria, and rules. Projects can be developed that are eligible under multiple funding programs, but the applications and justifications will have to be tailored to fit the most appropriate program.

The Weighted Average Residential Index (WARI) affordability analysis helped Toho Water Authority identify specific regions within their service area facing the greatest financial burdens. However, the low number of “high burden” census tracts made clear that the financial challenges facing rate payers went beyond utility bills.

In central Florida, the Toho Water Authority (TWA) serves over 100,000 customers in Kissimmee, Poinciana, and unincorporated areas of Osceola County. Recognizing many of their residents face financial hardships, TWA wanted to expand their CAP to provide discounts to qualifying customers. Our team examined the financial implications of various assistance programs and quantified the benefit provided to the rate payer. Using a metric called the Weighted Average Residential Index (WARI) that calculates the financial burden of utility rates, our team identified areas most in need of assistance.

The study highlighted that because TWA’s rates are already relatively low, monthly bill assistance would provide only marginal benefit to low income customers. Instead, TWA could provide more impactful assistance to disadvantaged communities by targeting fees related to account initiation (deposits), disconnections, and late payments.

In Louisville, Kentucky, we recently assisted the city and metropolitan sewer district in updating their local hazard mitigation plan. An important element was to map areas of the city with concentrations of socially vulnerable populations. This helped identify where certain mitigation projects were most needed. 

By overlapping important community data, our teams were able to search and zero in on vulnerable areas most at risk to help lessen the impact of future disasters.

Combining American Community Survey (ACS) block group data with address points and a 100-metre grid, we mapped the most socially vulnerable areas.

ACS data allowed us to include the following variables in our analysis:

  • Education (bachelor’s degree or higher)
  • Age (under 5 & over 65)
  • Disability
  • Health insurance
  • Poverty
  • Employment

This proved to be one of the most popular items in the plan among our stakeholder group. Recognizing the need to make the data user friendly and available to stakeholders, Louisville Emergency Management and Stantec are developing an interactive mapping system. This will allow more stakeholders to use this important information in the planning and implementation of their programs.

In Tennessee, we helped the state apply for the billion-dollar US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC). The two-phase application process was designed to enhance the resiliency of the state while meeting HUD criteria including low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities.

A suite of projects was identified that addressed unmet disaster recovery needs, benefited socially vulnerable populations, and helped the impacted communities create a more resilient future.

Among the projects were wastewater system improvements for Dyersburg, Henning, and the Jackson Energy Authority. These were unmet disaster recovery needs that would trigger utility infrastructure risks during future flood events in predominately LMI communities.

Helping all in the community

As we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s an ideal time for utility providers to implement CAP measures to assist the vulnerable in their service areas.

The key to success is knowing where your socially vulnerable residents live, making sure the solution matches the problem, and understanding the different funding programs. The pandemic has provided a wake-up call around equity, and there are resources available to assist.

For more on preparing for anticipated COVID-19 recovery funding, read:

  • John Bucher

    John is a senior planner based in Louisville, Kentucky. Committed to putting the people in his city first, work is focused on building resilience through community development, climate adaptation, and hazard mitigation.

    Contact John
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