Utility relief requests are high in Iowa as cold weather increases ( News Iowa )

Snow falls on the Cedar River south of Cedar Rapids in February 2022. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS – Cold temperatures and snow have already made their way to Iowa this month, and local and state organizations know the demand for utility assistance will be high as the cold winter weather increases.

Across the United States, many households are set to pay the largest share of their heating costs in the next 25 years.

Costs are predicted to be the result of higher fuel prices along with higher heating demands due to cold weather predicted this winter, according to the US Energy Information Administration’s annual winter fuel outlook. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the market even tighter.

US households could pay an average power bill of $1,359 this winter, the highest since at least 1997, according to administration data.

J’Nae Peterman, director of Waypoint housing services, said Linn County, like the rest of the country, is facing a housing crisis.

“A lot of people in our community — renters or owners — are struggling,” Peterman said. “The current situation is the competition in the bills, especially during the holidays. People are trying to do things with their families for the holidays so people risk sacrificing wages. This winter, it’s hard for families to keep their budgets.

Waypoint does not directly provide utility assistance, but connects clients to other organizations — such as the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, or HACAP — that do. However, Waypoint knows that there is a need to help the utility, based on the number of people in the program housing services, which connect individuals to subsidized housing or help to find further employment. Waypoint serves Linn, Benton and Jones counties.

“We went from serving 3,000 to 13,000 in our housing program in two years,” says Peterman.

HACAP, which serves Benton, Dubuque, Delaware, Iowa, Jackson, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties, provides direct benefit assistance. The number of families seeking support has grown in recent years.

In 2020, 7,781 households are eligible for energy assistance programs. In that year the number was 11,922. So far this year — as at the beginning of November — nearly 4,000 families had come. HACAP last winter provided $11 million in energy assistance in Eastern Iowa.

The energy assistance program is designed to help low-income families meet home heating costs and pay a portion of residential heating costs for eligible households. In most cases, the benefits came in the form of credit applied to the company’s heating utility bill.

Individuals in need of assistance can apply directly on the HACAP website at hacap.org/energyconservation. There are also paper applications available.

“The pandemic was really a time to highlight a lot of things and all of our services saw an increased need around everything,” said Chris Ackman, communications and volunteer manager for the organization. “We have an inflation issue. The moral of the story is: it has not gotten easier for lower income families. It has only become more difficult or, to be better, it has continued to be difficult.”

Energy assistance is also available at the state and federal level through the Iowa Department of Human Rights. Bill Marchion, director of the energy assistance bureau, said his department anticipates an increase in demand this winter.

“You’re looking for another rough ride,” Marquis said. “This is going to be an expensive one.”

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is a federally funded program that provides a one-time payment for utility heating and is distributed at the state level. By applying the program they also apply moratorium protection to prevent utility disconnection during the winter.

Marquis said the need so far this year has matched last year, when about 80,000 Iowa families attended.

“I think inflation has been a huge factor in this. Families are more careful where they put their income limits. We have to choose between buying food and medicine and there is not enough to go around,” Marchio said. We’re going from summer, straight into winter without much of a fall and that’s what the weather has affected.

The Department of Defense’s normal budget for energy assistance is roughly $55 million. However, over the next two years it had American Rescue Plan Act funding of $78 million, which allowed the department to supplement payments to all those who received aid. It also increased the limits of the safe roof of the furnace.

This year, the department has about $50 million, plus about $1 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law, and about $9 million from the Security Access Appropriations Act.

All applications and eligibility are done through local community agencies, which can be found on the Iowa Department of Human Rights website at humanrights.iowa.gov.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to get everything we’ve got,” Marchio said. “Pressures are issued through the action of institutions both for the benefit of the community.”

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