Winter hasn’t started yet, but the state has already spent a third of this season’s heating-assistance funds – a month before the program – to help low- and moderate-income residents fill their gas tanks.
The distribution of the funds comes as oil prices continue to climb much higher than last winter, and the Maine Housing Authority has significantly less money than it did then and more families to help.
The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – administered by MaineHousing as HEAP – provides funds to help pay winter heating bills for those who qualify. Maine typically receives about $40 million in heating assistance, which can come in various appropriations and helps between 35,000 to 40,000 households.
This year, the agency expects about $42.5 million, including a $6.4 million boost from Congress when it passed the federal emergency supplemental funding. Maine initially expected to receive $8 million. The state released about $11 million in late October to help pay for early heating bills.
Last year, the state received an additional $55 million for heating assistance as part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The funding was enough to provide an average of 1 ½ tanks of heating oil per household.
But last winter was an exception, according to Scott Thistle, a spokesman for MaineHousing. This year’s funding will not give such great profits, and the money won’t stretch as far as it did a year ago, when heating oil cost $3.16 a gallon.
Oil prices hit $5.57 a gallon last week. And without the ARPA boost, most eligible households in Maine will receive a benefit of between $800 to $1,100, or about 140 to 200 gallons if prices remain consistent.
Some Mainers will likely have to apply for aid for the first time, and the agency is trying to make HEAP funds more accessible to more families. Year over year, MaineHousing has already seen an 11% increase in HEAP applications.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
However, MaineHousing expects the HEAP money to be able to serve all households that apply for the program, which runs year-round. Applications are accepted until June.
Eligibility is based on income, family size and energy costs, and MaineHousing contracts with local community action agencies to process the applications. Profits are typically paid to the recipient’s fuel supplier as heating oil is used during the season.
Most funding goes out quickly to serve the most vulnerable populations first, Thistle said.
The early funding delivered heating assistance to nearly 11,000 eligible households and more than 17,000 people. That first round prioritized households with members 65 years of age and older.
“We are watching the spending rates, but there is no current concern about running out of funding,” Thistle said.
To free up the early funding, MaineHousing used discretionary funds that were committed to multifamily construction projects where the cash won’t be needed until December or later. MaineHousing will then pay these funds back to its multifamily program when it receives its federal HEAP funding, expected this month.
“The decision to move these funds and release them in the HEAP program to sellers means that when temperatures start to drop, some of our most vulnerable neighbors will have heating fuel in their tanks,” MaineHousing Director Daniel Brennan said in a statement.
“We know that staying warm this coming winter will be a challenge for many households and by releasing these funds early we hope to alleviate at least one concern for them as we await additional heating assistance from our federal government. While this payment will help, MaineHousing remains deeply concerned. on the current price of heating fuels especially kerosene and No. 2 heating oil.”
Amanda Graham has relied on HEAP and other heating assistance programs to heat her Rumford home in the past. But she told the Press-Herald last month that despite her efforts, this is the first year she hasn’t been able to find help outside the federal program. So many families need help this year that there are not enough funds to help everyone.
She has an appointment this month with Community Concepts, one of the community action agencies that processes HEAP funds. Until then she has to do.
“Inflation makes everything crazy,” she said. “It’s crazy to see people here, suffering, they can’t get help and they’re freezing. They need to lower oil prices to make it more affordable.”
In the meantime, MaineHousing is encouraging people to continue applying.
“It is important that eligible households apply because becoming eligible for HEAP will allow them to become eligible for other programs including weatherization programs and while that work may take time to be done, it will eventually be done, which is better than never done ,” Thistle said.
To speed up the process, MaineHousing and the community action agencies are testing an online HEAP application this week, with the hope of launching it for general use by the end of November, Thistle said. The agency too has an Energy Emergency Intervention Program funded with federal money that delivers fuel within 18 hours to a HEAP-eligible household when there is a heating emergency.
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