For many people, climate change is an abstract notion that’s easy to ignore — something another generation can deal with — until we live through a week like one that just passed, with brutal, below-zero temperatures that then swing suddenly to warmer temperatures. Such extremes add challenges to heating a home, and for many, that’s layered over the challenge of being able to afford heat and electricity in the first place. This is a struggle that, with rising poverty rates in the city, looms larger and larger each year.
According to a recent survey from the Pennsylvania Utility Commission, more than 18,500 households either don’t have heat or use an unsafe heat source. In Philadelphia, 7,777 households started this winter with their gas heat disconnected due to an unpaid bill, according to Philadelphia’s city-owned gas supplier PGW.
To help low-income households, Pennsylvania receives $222 million from the federal government through the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program. The program, administered by the Pa. Department of Human Services, gives grants to help low income households pay utility bills. In the past, the program was ill-administered and suffered from huge backlogs that left people without heat in the winter. However, advocates from legal aid organizations say that the program now is better administered and responds to issues quickly.
Still, for some of the state’s poorest families, even with LIHEAP, utility bills are too high. In fact, the PUC released a report last week that found that many households in the state pay more than 17 percent of their annual income on gas and electric bills — much higher than nearby states New York and New Jersey (6 percent), and Ohio (10 percent).
That’s significant, because, according to PUC policy, the percentage of total income a household pays for heat and electricity helps determine how much assistance it gets; the goal is that no one’s cost will exceed 17 percent. To put that number in perspective, the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines housing affordability as no more than 30 percent of income.
Energy burdens are further mitigated with assistance from utility companies intended to adjust the bill to no more than 17 percent of a household’s income.Following the release of the report, PUC commissioners are asking utilities to estimate the cost of increasing assistance so that bills of low income households do not exceed 10 percent of income. That would help people, but cost PECO and PGW more.
The report raises a possibility for funding. Commonly, assistance programs are underwritten by residential utility customers; commercial entities are exempt. That means that along with businesses and factories, hospital and universities do not share the cost of helping the lowest income households keep the heat on.
That is especially frustrating given that the “eds-and-meds" in our city not only are exempt from property taxes and businesses, but have a greater environmental impact than residential households.