EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 11, 2013

Heat, rent subsidies in danger


The Eagle-Tribune

---- — BOSTON (AP) — As winter approaches and the federal government shutdown lingers, millions of low-income Americans face potential delays in receiving help with their heating bills and monthly rent.

Among the programs that could be impacted as of Nov. 1 are the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, and a voucher program that allows poor families, seniors and the disabled live in private rental units, according to local agencies and state officials who administer the benefits.

The heating program, which last winter provided heating assistance to nearly 9 million income eligible people nationwide, is in limbo until the budget impasse is settled, Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, said yesterday.

“We don’t have an appropriation yet. We don’t know when we are going to get it. We don’t know how much it will be,” said Wolfe. “And we are already at the beginning of the winter heating season.”

In states like Massachusetts, heating assistance benefits typically begin to go out Nov. 1, but many of the 20 nonprofit agencies that administer the program have not even started accepting applications and one has been forced to close without the federal funding, according to Joe Diamond, head of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action.

The state received $133 million in LIHEAP funding last year, with the typical seasonal benefit ranging from $675 to $1,125 for individuals and families who heat their homes with oil, said Diamond.

“The shutdown really has to end,” he said, for heating assistance to beat the arrival of cold weather.

But even if President Obama and congressional Republicans were to come to terms immediately, Wolfe noted that it still could take several more weeks for funding formulas to be determined and money allocated to states.

Nationally, LIHEAP funding was just under $3.5 billion in the last fiscal year, a 30 percent decline since 2010.

Some states could take action to fill the void.

Diamond said he was hoping the Massachusetts Legislature would appropriate $20 million, both to cover emergency heating needs if the federal shutdown continues and to offset the recent funding cuts — particularly with forecasts pointing to higher heating costs this winter.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, administered through funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, pays up to 70 percent of rent for low-income families and individuals who live in privately-owned housing but cannot afford the market rents. The funds are paid directly to landlords.

Aaron Gornstein, Massachusetts undersecretary for housing and community development, said the state was able to pay October rent for its 20,000 vouchers, but would be unable to meet November rents unless the shutdown ends and funds can be obtained from HUD.

The problem would impact both tenants and landlords, he said. Understanding the situation, many landlords might hold off until the government reopens and the payments can be made. But even if landlords chose to pursue eviction, the process would take several months.

“The tenant won’t be immediately displaced,” said Gornstein.