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For The Poor, Warmth In The Winter Comes At A Steep Price

Christopher Sessums

Even as signs of spring emerge around the country, one particular remnant of winter remains: high energy bills. For low-income residents, a hefty heating bill can be an especially big burden, and not just in traditional cold-weather states.

In January, as temperatures dipped to record lows in eastern Tennessee, the Knoxville Utilities Board urged its customers: If you think you cannot pay your bill, call us. On average, gas bills were 29 percent higher than they were a year ago. And the poor have suffered even more, says Jeanie Fox, a customer counselor.

"It's mostly the old homes, people that rent, folks that are on fixed income and lower income — their housing stock is not as good," Fox says.

Much of the affordable housing in Knoxville is energy inefficient. Drafty windows and doors, old heating systems, and little or no insulation have led to monstrous bills.

Hard Choices

Every year, social workers at the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee field thousands of requests for energy assistance from the elderly, the disabled, and families with children.

Bridget Caldwell, a single mom, works as a caregiver, earning between $900 and $1,000 a month. She normally pays her bills on time, but the cold winter set her back. She currently owes $260 to the utility and must make at least a partial payment to keep her utilities connected.

Likewise, the man she cares for is also behind on his bill. He currently owes $450, more than half of his monthly Social Security check.

"It's a teeter-totter," says Cecelia Waters, director of energy and community services at the Community Action Committee. "You sometimes have to make choices between utilities and rent."

The bulk of energy assistance funds comes from the federal government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a $3.4 billion program aimed at families earning up to 150 percent of the poverty level.

Knoxville and Knox County expect to receive roughly $3 million in LIHEAP funds this fiscal year. The average grant is a one-time payment of $381, paid directly to the utility.

Waters acknowledges that the program does not solve the long-term problem of high energy burdens. But she contends that it does prevent those on the edge from spiraling further into poverty.

"It keeps a lot of families stable," she says.

In Knoxville, the waiting list for energy assistance is now more than 3,500 families long. Many, but not all, will likely get relief once the state releases another chunk of federal funds. For the most pressing cases, Waters is turning to churches and other nonprofits, even the Knoxville Utilities Board, for help.

Still, since the middle of December, the utility has disconnected 3,452 customers for nonpayment.

Finding A Solution

People in Knoxville recognize that this is a perennial problem.

"No churches out there want to keep donating to keep paying utility bills," says Jake Tisinger, project manager with the City of Knoxville's Office of Sustainability. "They want to solve the problem."

The city believes the solution lies with weatherization.

The idea of weatherproofing low-income housing has been around for decades. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated record amounts of money for weatherization: $5 billion to be used over three years.

Knoxville got a windfall: $6 million. Jason Estes, who directs Knoxville's weatherization program, says it allowed them to work on more than 1,500 homes, including that of a former coal miner and his wife, whose winter utility bill would soar to $800 a month. Through the weatherization program, they got a new heating and air system, had broken windows fixed, and all doors and windows caulked. In the end, the couple's energy usage was cut in half.

The problem with weatherization is that it is expensive — up to $6,500 a house. Estes, a general contractor by training, estimates that typical energy savings are around 20 percent. A return on investment can be expected in 15 to 20 years. But Estes points out that the payoff for those in need is immediate.

"Somebody that's getting $800 to $1,000 a month to live on, and they have to make those choices between, do I pay my utility bill, do I buy my medicine, do I buy food? Well, that $25, $75 a month that they might save is huge."

New Ideas

Lately, Estes has been trying to figure out new strategies.

He's working to create a shared database to show which pockets of the city have the highest energy bills, who's getting the most energy assistance, and how families in already weatherized homes are doing with their bills. He wants to create an energy rating system for homes so that low-income people can know what their bills are going to be before they move in.

He'd also like to weatherize much more of Knoxville's affordable housing. But since the Recovery Act, support for weatherization has plummeted. Department of Energy audits in other parts of the country, even elsewhere in Tennessee, found widespread waste and fraud, and egregious examples of shoddy work.

"That is very frustrating, and it's a battle we have to continue to contain and deal with, because it affects funding," Estes says. "I have 789 people on the waiting list for weatherization. And I have zero funding."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
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