Rio’s Electric Utility Fails to Remove Problematic Meters, Favela Residents Pay the Price

Photo: Tyler Strobl

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Earlier this year, the Rio de Janeiro City Council passed Law 6.334/2018 prohibiting the installation of public utility Light’s new model of electric meters, also retroactively requiring the company to remove all models of the meter throughout the city. A similar law was passed in Nova Iguaçu, a municipality in the Baixada Fluminense, after complaints of faulty meters inflating residents’ electric bills there, too.

The law was passed on April 3 and included a daily R$30,000 (US$8,000) fine for noncompliance, meaning that the utility should owe approximately R$8 million (US$2 million) in fines by the end of 2018 in accordance with the legislation. However, shortly after the law’s passage, Light began a legal procedure in an effort to declare the law unconstitutional. According to financial memos containing data on ongoing legal proceedings involving the utility (dated as recently as September), Light successfully obtained a temporary injunction on May 24. The court order determined that “the petitioner [Light] is not obliged to obey the provisions of Law 6.334/2018 and is furthermore exempt from any sanctions imposed for noncompliance of the duties established in the aforementioned legislation.” While the current status of the case is unclear, the injunction effectively suspended the law from coming into force for the majority of 2018.

Meanwhile, residents of Rio das Pedras—the community that organized and pushed for the bill’s passage—continue to pay the price, suffering from exorbitant electric bills.

In late 2017 and early 2018, residents across the city—and specifically in the community of Rio das Pedras—began complaining about the sky-high electricity bills, some of which were charging thousands of reais per month for 25 to 30-square meter apartments and flats. Despite the law’s passage, the situation has not changed. “Light isn’t respecting the law that was passed. The bills are exorbitant. It’s rare to find houses larger than 30 square meters,” stated Paulinho from the Rio das Pedras Residents’ Commission.

Many residents work in other communities, where they have noted that bills are half as high or even less for significantly larger homes and higher electricity usage. “The majority of people here make between R$1,500-2,000 (US$400-550) and pay R$400-500 (US$100-135) in rent. Then [an electric] bill for R$800-R$1,000 (US$200-275) arrives. How are they going to afford that? They can’t. People are leaving Rio das Pedras, going back to the Northeast [of Brazil] and moving to other communities.” Despite promises that no evictions would take place following the community’s successful mobilization efforts, many residents believe the electric bills are connected to Mayor Marcelo Crivella’s original idea for Rio das Pedras (a low-income community near his own home) as cited in his Strategic Plan for the city: to remove homes in the community and implement a verticalization project.

Members of the Residents’ Commission believe that Light has been sending estimated bills instead of accurately measured ones, a common practice by energy companies around the world to avoid sending workers to measure meters. Residents report that they have even received verbal confirmation from Light technicians that the utility has not been receiving exact measurements of electricity usage in Rio das Pedras.

However, it’s not just the high electric bills themselves that make life tough for residents. Members of the Rio das Pedras Residents’ Commission cited the example of a bar owner in the community who received a bill for almost R$8,000 (US$2,100) for one month of use—and this for a meter that has been shut off for several months. “The guy has bills totaling almost R$100,000 (US$27,000). He can’t even get R$1,000 (US$270) in credit because they have ‘dirtied’ his name,” Paulinho explained. Nonpayment of these bills has a greater impact than many would expect. Since this resident is behind on paying his bills, he is barred from accessing credit and loans. Beverage company Ambev recently banned him from paying for bulk orders. He is currently purchasing from another bar-owner in the community at a higher price, which has caused major financial strains for him and his family.

Unfortunately, he is not alone. Both of the Residents’ Commission members interviewed for this article had unknowingly experienced this problem before quickly resolving the issue, recognizing that they are among the few Rio das Pedras residents who took action to clear their names from credit blacklists. The real impact of these sky-high bills is not fully understood. How many people in Rio das Pedras are currently unable to use credit or take out loans? How much business is being drained from the community because of frozen transactions? How many people have already left the community due to their inability to pay?

Residents see a connection between these super-high electric bills and the recent attempt by the mayor to level the community. According to Paulinho, “It’s something very subtle but these things are done for a reason. It’s known that this is an Area of Special Social Interest (AEIS) for working-class people. Wouldn’t it be more convenient to have energy bills within people’s means? These meters have been here for five years but the high bills started coming only after the fight with the mayor. I don’t know if there is a connection, but it’s a pretty big coincidence.”

The Residents’ Commission is also wary about believing they are free from the nightmare of eviction. They are constantly monitoring Crivella’s actions and words. “Historically, we have never caused problems here but this time is different. We [favela residents] build his building, take care of his street, take care of his condominium, provide food for his restaurants, provide food for his house and kids, provide security, and we only get thirty square meters to live in. Just when you think that you can finally live in peace, the guy comes and wants to knock us all down,” Paulinho lamented.

Residents of Rio das Pedras aren’t going down without a fight. Antônio, president of the Rio das Pedras Residents’ Commission, has recently hired his own lawyer to sue Light for their delay in taking down the meters on his property—a fight his lawyer believes they will win with the backing of the municipal law. They believe that once one case is won, others will follow, and Light will be forced into action. In the meantime, they plan to closely monitor the mayor’s actions—remaining alert to any indication that he might continue with his original plans for Rio das Pedras—and look out for other parties pushing for the removal of the community.

Paulinho had this to say: “It’s not just him [Mayor Crivella]. I think there is someone behind him—like there are behind other mayors. If he comes back to attack, we will seek to understand who’s behind it. There must be someone really powerful backing him. Eduardo Paes evicted a lot of people and now it’s Crivella… wanting to do the same.”

Through the Residents’ Commission, formed approximately one year ago in response to pressing eviction threats at the time, residents of Rio das Pedras have already had two major successes: thwarting Crivella’s initial verticalization project and passing the law against Light. While they don’t know what the future holds, one thing is certain: they won’t back down now.