Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was in Buffalo Monday morning, stating the case for continued strong funding of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in the next COVID relief package.
The Democrat was among those who voted last year to include $900 million for LIHEAP as part of a COVID relief package. But what is budgeted, she explained Monday, adequately serves only one in six qualified households.
"The past year has put an unprecedented financial strain on Buffalo families," Gillibrand said. "People are out of work, or are working less and struggling to make ends meet, including putting food on the table and paying their bills at the end of the month. That includes their utility bills."
Prior to the COVID pandemic, an estimated 130,000 Western New York homes, including seniors and low-income households, relied on LIHEAP assistance. The need has increased, Gillibrand stated. Though an updated number of people needing LIHEAP assistance was not readily available, the senator noted that one of every five households nationwide have now fallen at least two months behind in utility payments.
The senator noted that moratoria are in place preventing evictions or shutdowns of utilities. But community housing activists worry about the eventual end of those protections and a wave of homelessness that could cause.
"It's a scary moment for communities that don't have a significant amount of income," said Christian Parra, Community Organizer at Citizen Action of New York. "Here in Buffalo, we have a lot of urban communities that don't have the significant jobs to be able to even pay the increase of heat electricity. National Grid and National Fuel CEOs are making too much money, millions of dollars, while poor people are having the increase in the hikes. They're the ones actually being impacted the most."
Gillibrand is among lawmakers now calling for increased support for LIHEAP, including at least $10 million in emergency funding. She was asked how much of an impact the additional dollars could have on those trying to catch up on back utility debt.
“The amount of the benefit would generally be between $350 and $675, depending on the type of heating fuel they need,” Gillibrand replied. “So that will at least be able to dent very significant heating bills that have accrued. We will continue to ask for more LIHEAP money so that back heating bills can be paid as well, because we want to keep families in their homes safe. And we want to make sure the resources they need are available.”
Parra added a point about Buffalo's housing stock and quality, and how it affects home utility bills.
"Here in Buffalo is the second-oldest housing stock in America," he said. "A lot of these houses have lead, asbestos, a lot of these houses are not insulated. There are families that are paying a ridiculous amount of money when there's a pandemic. And we look at the housing crisis. We're about to see the most evictions in this nation that we've ever seen."