OTDA Receiving Public Input for Development of Next Year’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP)

New York Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) benefits for the 2013-14 winter are no longer being issued.  The Regular HEAP Program ended March 14, and the Emergency HEAP Program ended March 17.  HEAP benefits are limited because New York law does not directly supplement the federal funding for that program.

Much of the HEAP money goes to energy vendors, typically utilities, oil, and propane dealers. When HEAP is not available, people facing utility shutoffs and other emergencies may still be eligible for financial aid to forestall or end a shutoff under state and local assistance programs having more stringent eligibility requirements than HEAP.  New York Social Services Law section 131-s provides for the payment of up to four months of utility arrears to eligible households in order to prevent termination of utility service.   Such payments on behalf of applicants are funded through the state’s Safety Net Assistance (SNA) and ‘Emergency Assistance to Adults (EAA) programs. See STATE UTILITY ASSISTANCE IS NOT A “ONE-SHOT DEAL”

The New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) annually prepares a state plan for use of federal block grant funds under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Act (LIHEAA).  While states are given great latitude in shaping the program, the plan submitted by the Governor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must provide for public input in its development.

In early 2014, the plan was amended to increase the benefit for tenants living in seven subsidized housing categories with heating costs embedded in their rent.  The benefit was increased from $1 to $21, in order to maximize household eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)benefits, formerly known as Food Stamps.  The federal LIHEAA statute contemplates that eligible households may bear energy costs indirectly when they rent with heat included:

“The term “household” means any individual or group of individuals who are living together as one economic unit for whom residential energy is customarily purchased in common or who make undesignated payments for energy in the form of rent….”  

This recognition that renters bear energy costs indirectly “in the form of rent” was, we recall, inserted into LIHEAA at the instance of New York’s Senators Javits and Moynihan, in order to make the LIHEAP program more equitable to low-income renters in New York City and other urban areas of the state.  Despite this provision, in 1989 New York state completely eliminated the HEAP ‘renter’s benefit” for households living in subsidized housing whose heat is included in rent.  Even after a Congressional clarification that favored the tenants, this exclusion was upheld by a federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a 1995 federal class action brought by subsidized housing residents represented by the Utility Project.

 Subsequently, the state had second thoughts about eliminating the HEAP benefit.  Under complicated eligibility and budget calculations  for a SNAP utility allowance, the lack of any HEAP benefits triggers a substantial reduction in SNAP benefits for large numbers of needy households residing in subsidized housing. So, the state reversed its decision to deny HEAP to subsidized housing tenants whose heat is included in rent, and began to provide a HEAP benefit — one dollar a year ($1).

This year, Congress passed a law, clearly aimed at New York, that reduces the SNAP benefits substantially if the annual state HEAP grant to a household is not at least $20. New York responded by raising the annual HEAP grant for tenants in subsidized housing with heat included in rent — from $1 to $21.  See States resist food stamp cuts;   Reid Wilson,  States use farm bill loophole to stem food stamp cutsWashington Post, March 26, 2014.

The “needs assessment” for the 2014-15 HEAP year is now underway.  Public comments on needs to be addressed in the 2014-15 HEAP Plan are being received until April 9, 2014.  A draft HEAP plan for 2014-15 will be issued, in the summer, and there will be a public comment period for that.  Usually few comments are received and the plan has relatively few changes from year to year.

Gerald A. Norlander

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