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Last night the Seattle Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee and Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee hosted a joint Special Committee on utility assistance programs at Chief Sealth High School.
This spring, our office has worked with several families facing water shut-offs, navigating the various agencies and programs offering assistance. Trying to comprehend the network of programs ourselves, we struck out into the community to hear from residents and community based organizations about how these programs are working.
In short, we learned a lot. First, a bit about the programs:
- The Utility Discount Program: this program offers regular discounts of up to 50% on SPU and City Light bills to income eligible households (70% of median income). Participating households can reapply every 18 months for this ongoing assistance.
- One-time assistance programs to help pay an outstanding bill (families generally qualify for support once per year): This includes City Light’s Project Share, and SPU’s Emergency Assistance Program, both of which provide emergency payment assistance to customers at risk of electricity or water shut offs.
- The Low Income Assistance Program administered by the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), is a federally funded program that offers one-time (once per year) assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Puget Sound Energy.
- Programs to reduce bills through energy efficiency and water conservation: These newer programs include the Office of Housing’s Homewise program, which offers free weatherization services to income eligible households. Also their low interest home repair program.
- The Utility Assistance Program offers free toilet replacement and CAMP administers programs that provide funding to repair broken window and heating systems.
One of the surprising statistics of the evening – and one of our reasons for having the committee meeting – is that only 15-20% of residents who qualify for these programs are accessing them. We need to spread the word! And, as we heard during testimony, we need to continue to work to create strong city-community partnerships to reach the many diverse communities who reside in Seattle.
During public testimony we heard from many residents who are struggling to pay their high utility bills. One of the highlights of the evening was working together with interpreters and a team of staff from the Utilities, Human Services Department, Seattle Housing Authority and non-profit partners to connect those in the room to existing services. We also heard from a representative from the Puget Sound Labor Agency who runs a food bank Mondays and Fridays and usually serves between 150 and 200 clients. In addition, they have 1 staff member whose sole responsibility is to help in utility assistance.
Finally, some of the questions about future policies that were raised during our discussion surrounded how tenants access the discount programs. We heard suggestions for mandated notification about programs when someone signs a lease or at a regular point in the year (if a tenant qualifies for a discount program he/she can currently be added to the bill with the landlord to receive the discount).
We heard concerns about how the city discount programs work with third party billing systems. Customers need to have an SPU bill to qualify for SPU discount programs – is there a better way to be doing this?
In our discussion about Peoplepoint (Seattle’s one-stop-shop for basic needs services), we considered ways that we might standardize the income and other qualifications for the various programs to simplify enrollment and access to services.
These are all good ideas that I look forward to exploring in the coming months.
Thanks to all of the residents who shared their experience last night and to the city agencies and non-profits who helped connect participants to existing programs. I look forward to continuing this conversation about how we ensure that all families have access to affordable waters, sewer, garbage, and electricity services.