Winter hasn’t yet started, but the state has already spent a third of this season’s home heating assistance funds – a month ahead of schedule – to help low- and moderate-income residents fill their oil tanks.
The distribution of the funds comes as oil prices continue to climb much higher than last winter, and the Maine Housing Authority has substantially less money than it did then and more families to assist.
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 is expecting about $42.5 million, including a $6.4 million boost from Congress when it passed the federal emergency supplemental funding package. 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 extra $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 provide benefits as large, and the money won’t stretch as far as it did a year ago when heating oil cost $3.16 per 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 stay consistent.
Some Mainers will likely have to apply for assistance 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
Still, MaineHousing expects the HEAP money will be able to serve all households that apply for the program, which runs throughout the year. Applications are accepted into June.
Eligibility is based on income, family size and energy costs, and MaineHousing contracts with local community action agencies to process the applications. Benefits are typically paid to a recipient’s fuel provider as heating oil is used throughout the season.
The largest chunk of funding goes out quickly to serve the most vulnerable populations first, Thistle said.
The early funding delivered heating assistance to almost 11,000 eligible households and over 17,000 people. This first round prioritized households with members 65 years old and older.
“We are keeping an eye on the spending rates but there is not a current concern of running out of funding,” Thistle said.
In order to release the early funding, MaineHousing used discretionary funds that had been committed to multi-family construction projects, where the cash will not be needed until December or later. MaineHousing will then repay these funds to its multi-family 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 vendors means as temperatures begin 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 staying warm this coming winter will be a challenge for many households and by releasing these funds early we are hoping to alleviate at least one worry for them while we await additional heating help from our federal government. While this payment will help, MaineHousing remains deeply concerned about 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 of the federal program. So many families need assistance this year that there aren’t enough funds to help everyone.
She has an appointment this month with Community Concepts, one of the community action agencies that process HEAP funds. Until then, she has to make do.
“Inflation is making everything crazy,” she said. “It’s crazy to see people out here, suffering, they can’t get any help and they’re freezing. They need to bring oil prices back down so it’s more affordable.”
Meanwhile, MaineHousing is encouraging people to keep applying.
“It’s 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 get done, it will eventually get done, which is better than it not ever getting done ,” Thistle said.
To speed up the process, MaineHousing and the community action agencies are testing an online HEAP application this week, with hopes of rolling it out for general use by the end of November, Thistle said. The agency also has an Energy Crisis Intervention Program funded with federal money, which delivers fuel within 18 hours to a HEAP-eligible household when there is a heating emergency.
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