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Energy Cost Assistance and Property Tax Relief

Energy Cost Assistance and Property Tax Relief

Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP)

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) was created in 1976 to assist low-income families who lacked resources to invest in energy efficiency. WAP is operated in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Native American tribes, and U.S. Territories. Funds are used to improve the energy efficiency of low-income homes using the most advanced technologies and testing protocols available in the housing industry. The energy conservation resulting from the efforts of state and local agencies helps our country reduce its dependence on foreign oil and decrease the cost of energy for families in need while improving the health and safety of their homes. This program results in significant yearly energy savings. The average household saves $413 or more per year on energy after the home is weatherized.

The general process involves filling out an application form, either from home or at a local agency. Once this form has been submitted, the applicant will be contacted and notified as to eligibility. There may be a waiting list before benefits can begin. The benefit is available both to homeowners and renters whether living in multi-family housing, a single home or a mobile home. Preference is given to persons 60 years and older with disabilities and families with children. Those receiving Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), are automatically eligible. All means tested individuals - Based on 125% - 150% federal poverty - are also automatically eligible.

The Weatherization Assistance Program works to:

  • Reduce energy costs and alleviate high energy burden for low-income families
  • Decrease the nation's energy consumption and avoid related emissions
  • Improve housing stock and neighborhood conditions
  • Provide an economic boost in low-income communities
  • Educate consumers in energy efficiency practices

After performing an energy audit, a professionally-trained Weatherization inspector will determine the best energy-efficiency measures for the home based on heating and cooling needs. This individual will meet with household members to explain how the trained Weatherization crews will conduct the work. Following Weatherization, an inspector will return to make certain that everything is working properly and nothing was missed.

Some typical Weatherization work that may be performed includes:

  • Insulating the attic, walls, floors, water heater, and exposed pipes.
  • Tuning-up, repairing, and if necessary, replacing the furnace or heating unit and the air conditioner if applicable.
  • Installing ventilation fans including electric, attic, ceiling, or whole-house fans to increase air circulation.
  • Eliminating air infiltration by weatherstripping and caulking around doors and windows and replacing broken glass panes.
  • Focusing on energy-related health and safety issues while performing all work.
  • Providing instructions on the care of the Weatherization materials and simple, low-cost/no-cost tips on how to save even more energy and money after the Weatherization materials have been installed.

For complete details about the Weatherization Program, contact a local area agency on aging or the U.S. Department of Energy at (800) DIAL-DOE or (800) 948-5969.

Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program - LIHEAP

The family that cannot pay for home heating oil or natural gas or electricity for cooling may make the home unsafe and put members of the family at risk. The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps qualifying low income households pay heating and cooling costs.

In order to qualify for LIHEAP, a household must demonstrate a need for financial assistance for home energy costs and the household's annual income before taxes must not exceed income levels established by the various state LIHEAP offices, based on the current state median income and federal poverty levels. Contact a local area agency on aging for further details

For 2011, LIHEAP funding to states by Congress directs the Department of Health and Human Serves to make the same amount of formula funding that was provided during this same time period in FY2010 available. This additional funding brings the total amount available since October 1, 2010 to $3.9 billion in formula grants. In FY2010, Congress appropriated $5.1 billion ($4.5 billion in formula and $590 million in contingency) in total. Additionally, $200 million in contingency funding was released to states.

This additional LIHEAP funding will provide assistance to households in need during a time of the year when many states are coping with a cold weather season that typically causes a spike in demand. However, a final determination on the remaining LIHEAP funds must still be made before the current temporary 2011 funding expires.

Lifeline and Link-Up

Lifeline provides qualified consumers with a discount on monthly charges for their primary home phone line, even if it's a cell phone. Link-Up lowers the cost that eligible consumers pay for setting up new phone service at their home, including cell phone service.

Lifeline can save at least $10 a month on phone bills, depending on where someone lives in the state and which phone company in the area provides the program. Some states provide more discounts to make local telephone service even more affordable. To determine if a state offers these additional discounts, contact the state public utility commission.

Link-Up pays up to $30.00 of a qualified consumer's home phone startup fees (even if it's a cell phone), not including the cost of the phone. Link-Up also lets consumers borrow up to $200 of set-up fees, interest-free, for up to one year. Those living on tribal lands may qualify for additional discounts.

These telephone service discounts are available to qualifying consumers throughout the country, although eligibility requirements vary from state to state. Some states have broader categories for eligibility so that more people will qualify. For states that use the federal income categories for qualification, those standards require either that consumers have a total household income that does not exceed 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines OR that they participate in one of the following programs:

  • Medicaid
  • Food Stamps
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance (Section 8)
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or
  • The National School Lunch Programs Free Lunch Program

State Programs for Energy Efficiency

Most of these programs are for all people regardless of income level. Just a few are targeted to low income individuals.

State governments play a critical and leading role in energy efficiency investment and financing. Last year these programs spent more than $1.1 billion on energy efficiency grant, loan and tax credit programs and have developed a capacity and experience to finance energy efficiency, particularly in new and existing residences.

Each state that runs an energy efficiency financing activity takes a somewhat different approach. Some are small-scale programs funded out of an old and diminishing source of money known as the Petroleum Violation Escrow (PVE) funds. Other states run larger-scale programs from bonds or appropriations and other states use public benefit funds to finance major energy efficiency investments. The largest state activities rely on multi-million dollar public benefit funds for support.

Mechanisms for financing efficiency vary too. Some states rely on loans, others use grants or tax rebates and incentives. Some, like New York State, use a combination of several kinds of incentives. Some states rely on their private utility companies or utility commissions to manage energy efficiency investments with funds collected pursuant to state legislation and regulation. Other states manage their efficiency programs "in-house" through their energy office or utility commission.

A small group of other states contract out the management of their energy efficiency programs to third parties. In some cases (Massachusetts, Maine, California, New Jersey and New York, for instance) state agencies administer the public benefit funds, in other cases (Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, for example) the utility administers the program and in two other (Vermont and Oregon) cases a third party does so under a performance-based contract with the state.

PVE funds are available to states as a result of alleged oil company violations of Federal oil pricing controls in place from 1973 to 1981. These funds are almost totally expended; however, a few states still have funds remaining and are using them to support various energy efficiency initiatives, such as the loan and grant programs discussed in this section.

Sixteen states offer loan programs that support energy efficiency. These states typically offer loans either to builders or directly to residential homeowners. They generally cap the size of each loan, or the size of the state's contribution to the loan. The size of each loan varies a great deal, from as small as $400 to as large as $60,000 in the case of Connecticut's MultiEnergy Conservation Loan program. Typical loans tend to be around $15,000. Interest rates are typically subsidized.

In order to receive a loan a home energy audit is required to identify specific measures to reduce energy consumption. They include measures that will target specific applications of technology, suggest specific places that need sealing and recommend, where appropriate, new insulation or ventilation.

Twelve states also offer grant or rebate programs that support energy efficiency and are generally not dependent upon income for qualifying. Every state specifies what equipment qualifies for a grant or rebate, and in most cases the list is fairly similar, with air conditioners, lighting, furnaces, washing machines, duct sealing, programmable thermostats and insulation appearing on almost every state's list of qualifying equipment. Some states maintain expanded lists - New York includes efficient ceiling fans and dehumidifiers in its list of products.

In many cases, grants or rebates are directly tied to an ENERGY STAR classification. The District of Columbia, for example, has this requirement for clothes washers and dryers, refrigerators and freezers and room air conditioners. Maine's rebate for certain lighting fixtures is tied to ENERGY STAR rating. Rhode Island's ENERGY STAR Rebate Program focuses on furnaces, boilers and ENERGY STAR programmable thermostats. Clothes washers need to qualify for the ENERGY STAR rating if they are to get the Vermont rebate. Wisconsin's ENERGY STAR Products Cash-Back rewards program offers rebates for dishwashers, refrigerators/freezers, dehumidifiers, lighting and clothes washers that comply with ENERGY STAR.

Nine states plus the District of Columbia use tax incentives as a further measure to encourage energy efficiency in residences. Tax incentives laws specify who is eligible for the incentive, whether the incentive is a deduction or credit, and which specific measures qualify for the tax incentive. Typical incentives specify certain measures or technologies that qualify. Some states offer a tax incentive for purchase of a new home if it meets a certain efficiency level.

Credit or deductions levels vary from one state to another; in one case the deduction is for the interest on a loan for energy efficiency, but in most cases the tax incentive is based on the cost of equipment such as lighting, water heating, cooling, insulation or other equipment. States have traditionally deferred to programs established by Fannie Mae, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Affairs to take the lead on offering this product to the general public. In practice that effort has resulted in few loans being made for many reasons including a lack of a systematic marketing and outreach effort.

Property Tax Assistance

According to the Retirement Living Information Center's website, every state in America offers property tax relief programs for seniors. One of the most commonly available programs for senior-age property owners is the homestead exemption program, but deferral, credit and property tax circuit breakers are also ways in which the property tax burden can be lessened during retirement years.

Property tax homestead exemptions are a type of exemption that can reduce the assessed value of a property if it used as the owner's primary residence. For resident property owners older than 65, the state further reduces the assessed value, which lowers the amount of annual property tax due on the home. While the rules for homestead exemption can vary by state, exemptions are written at the state level and passed down to the local jurisdictions of the state, such as counties, cities or towns with eligible senior property tax payers.

Seniors may qualify for deferral programs that delay the property tax burden for low-income property-owners who are in the process of selling their property. The property tax is not due until the home is sold, which allows the owner to use the proceeds of the sale to help pay back property taxes.

Unlike deferral or homestead exemption programs, credit programs require the senior property owner to pay the amount of property tax in full in order to receive a future refund based on age. Refunds are dispersed once the tax has been paid for the current year, with refund checks given based on the state's local tax calendar.

Property tax circuit breaker programs are available to seniors or any person with limited income. Under the circuit breaker program, restrictions on the amount of property tax an owner will pay are based on the income level of the owner, which sets the percentage of property tax owed. For senior home owners with larger properties but less income during retirement, this may be just as useful as a credit or deferral program.

In Florida, where the senior citizen population is one of the highest in the country, the state has adopted a freeze program that allows residents 65 or older to pay a small increase in tax per year based on a previous tax year's property assessment. Other states, such as California and Arizona, offer similar freeze programs, which are useful to seniors with limited income. By "freezing" the assessment, property owners can pay a tax rate equal to the rate they paid prior to retirement, which cuts down on costs that can accrue if the property's value increases while the owner's income decreases.

Emergency Assistance

Emergency assistance is an immediate, short-term response to an emergency resulting from financial crisis, family breakdown, eviction, or natural disaster. It may include emergency shelter, provision of food or clothing, and assistance with energy bills.

Often, emergency assistance is accompanied by counseling, intervention, budgeting help, case management, and advocacy with agencies, which provide financial assistance.

Not-for-profit and government agencies, religious organizations, unions, fraternal associations, and neighborhood associations are often sources of emergency assistance for the particular population groups with which they are affiliated or concerned. Such efforts are often administered informally by volunteers. They may include food, clothing, and small cash grants. The 2-1-1 call center maintains information on these services.

Disaster relief is emergency assistance provided on a large scale to victims of such disasters as major fires, floods, hurricanes, or accidents involving passenger planes and trains. One agency needs to assume responsibility for coordinating relief efforts.