Edward Walton heats his dinners in a microwave. He confines himself to one room in his South Austin house, trying to fight the cold. He has not always lived this way.
Walton’s gas provider shut off his heat last year. He had fallen behind in his utility payments after his work as a freelance event photographer dried up.
“For a lot of years, I never thought I would have to adjust like that,” Walton said. “But now I see what it’s like to be without money to pay bills. So you just gotta make adjustments.”
Though the city’s temperatures are finally starting to feel spring-like, it was only last month that Chicago’s temperatures fell below average this winter. That meant high utility bills for residents like Walton. While energy costs decreased slightly, Chicago households face rate hikes in a tough economy. Nationally, the average household utility cost increased by 33 percent since 2004, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Walton owes $800 on his gas bill and turned to the South Austin Coalition Community Council for help. The organization helps low-income, elderly or disabled clients with financial problems.
Teresa Welch-Davis, the coalition’s assistant director, helped Walton apply for help with the nonprofit Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County.
The association works with the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which allocated almost $5 billion for state grants in 2010. Illinois will receive approximately $260,000, the fourth-highest state allotment.
Many times if consumers can pay a small amount as a good faith payment, they can get their heat turned back on. Welch-Davis, however, said some are far from being able to pay off their bills. She has seen bills as high as $3,000 a month. She also has seen increased need from Chicago residents who, like Walton, lost jobs due to the troubled economy and face escalating utility rates. Increasing heating costs are a burden not only for the unemployed, said Jim Chilsen of the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), an Illinois advocacy group.
“This economy combined with rate hikes,” he said, “are a punch in the gut to middle- and low-income consumers.”
Peoples Gas announced an average 5-percent rate increase in January. The company said rate changes were necessary to cover internal costs and followed 12 years without a rate hike before their most recent increase in 2008.
They offer assistance through Share the Warmth, a matching grant program. ComEd offers similar assistance services.
CUB offers consumers advice about how to cut costs through energy efficiency, but Chilsen said utility companies have a responsibility to roll back rate hikes. People are making sacrifices already, he said, forced to choose between heat and medicine or heat and food.
“They’ve done all they can to the point where they have put themselves in dangerous situations,” Chilsen said. “It’s time for the utility companies to do their part.”