No-cost/Low-cost Energy Resources

No-cost/Low-cost Energy Programs

Resource Person:

Mary Knittle - Mary


Richard Merlino - Rich

Douglas Quattrochi - Doug

[Start 0:00:00]

Mary: Thank you very much everybody for welcoming me this evening and for the lovely meal. My name again is Mary Knittle. I am the energy director at the Worcester Community Action Council. WCAC is a private nonprofit dedicated to helping people move out of poverty and towards self-sufficiency. Thank you.

Doug: Slide [unintelligible 0:00:00]

Mary: Groovy. Thank you. I have brought handouts and they’re on the table with the sharing documents, and I’ll put them there later purposely so that you wouldn’t have hit all the high points of the presentation before I spoke, but there’s plenty of information for you to take home. There’s an information sheet designed for landlords that kind of hits the high points that I think is helpful for landlords to know. People that we’ve worked with in the past have said that this is helpful. I’ve also provided a pile of gray sheets that are designed for you to give to your tenants, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about that.

I hope that everybody can see this chart. LIHEAP is the federally funded fuel-assistance program that is administered in Massachusetts. We are one of 23 providers around the state that supports the fuel-assistance program. There are a lot of misconceptions in the general public about fuel assistance.

(1) People are eligible for fuel assistance based on the number of people who live in their household and their combined income. The ceiling for eligibility is much higher than most people think. A family of four can earn $66,115 and still be eligible for a benefit. Benefits are paid on a sliding scale, so a family of four that is earning $12,000 will receive a higher benefit.

Male Audience 1: [unintelligible 0:02:02]

Mary: Pardon?

Male Audience 1: [unintelligible 0:02:06]

Mary: I’m going to get into that. This is a benefit in general. This is 60 percent of the state median income, which is higher than 100 percent of the federal poverty level. It’s higher than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This program is designed to help people reduce their energy burden, the percentage of their monthly income that’s going towards heat.

(2) Tenants and homeowners are both eligible. Many of you picture fuel assistance and you think about Joel for Oil, pumping the oil into the little Cape Cod house for the old lady. It’s much, much, much more than that. Joe for Oil has been very generous to our programs in years past, but we need to dispel the notion that it’s only for homeowners. It’s for homeowners or tenants, regardless of the number of units in your building. You can have any kind of income and be eligible. Approximately 78 percent of the people who apply through the Worcester Community Action Council, we serve people in the towns surrounding Worcester immediately down to Southbridge, Webster, Dudley, some of the Blackstone Valley, out to Brookfield and West Warren, and we have sister agencies that serve everyone else in the state.

We pay for every kind of heat, oil, gas, electric, wood, wood pellets, coal. If people have heat included in their rent, they can get a reimbursement for that portion of their rental payment that is attributed to heat. They’re not eligible to do that if they receive a housing subsidy.

My guidance on this book, no lie, is about 1-1/2 inches thick. There’s a lot of details. My point in sharing this with you and giving you referral information to take with you is that when you talk to your tenants and you say, “Where is the rent?” and they say, “Can I have until Friday? I have to get oil, I have to do whatever.”

“Have you applied for fuel assistance?” Fuel assistance not only pays a portion of their heating bill directly to the vendor most of the time, utilities or mom and pop oil companies, but also we ensure that the people get on the discount rate for their utilities. Even if they heat with oil, they’re going to get a discount on their electric bill. National Grid right now is giving a 20 percent discount to low-income people, so they could $300 or $400 or $800, paid on their electric bill, plus the 30 percent discount. That is going to free up cash for them to pay their rent, to pay their car repairs, so that they can maintain their transportation, so that they can maintain their jobs.

One thing that I know about working with people in poverty and near poverty is they’re not really good planners. Our programs recognize this, and this is why I’m coming to you. We’ve been promoting this to the low-income people of the world for a very long time. Since the recession ended, our application numbers have dropped considerably. There are many, many households, and I would suggest that most people who are renting at all are likely eligible if you have a household of one, two, or three people, okay?


We will also help people, it’s kind of a side job that we do. we have generous donated from banks, from community organizations, and from utilities. Even if we’re not paying winter heating bills anymore, we can help your tenants navigate and negotiate those punishing utility bills from a shutoff, from their last address, from something their boyfriend set up for them, or their girlfriend, or their parents. We’ve all heard the story. “I can’t get an account because I’ve got an old bill.” We can help people with old bills. We can help them get on payment plans, and we can help them make the deposit. When you have these conversations with people, you’re going to refer them to us.

That’s the eligibility for the fuel assistance program. Part 2 is energy efficiency.

In addition to paying utility bills and helping support the clients through these difficult situations that are punishingly complicated to sort out for so many people, we want to help them lower their energy usage, lower their electric bills right off the top.

The traditional Mass Save Program that everybody in the world is familiar with, we administer that for low-income people. It’s all done through our network. It increases participation and we can provide more in-depth and more complete services than Mass Save can because Mass Save is ala carte. People have to put some money into it. We take care of many of those things ourselves.

Currently, if you have an energy audit at your home, we will replace the light bulbs with LED energy-efficient lightbulbs. If the refrigerator is inefficient, we will replace the refrigerator. We are currently also replacing window air-conditioners that are energy inefficient, dehumidifiers, and hot-off the presses this fall washing machines.

Washing machines, there’s a little gray area there. Our funders want to require that the people do a fair amount of laundry, so one single little old lady is probably not going to qualify for it, but if you have four or five people living in a household, they do four or five loads of laundry a week, they have an old-fashioned washing machine with an agitator, we can submit to have that replaced at no cost to the client.

This is the big money ticket: weatherization. I’m going to talk to you primarily about one- to four-unit buildings. We have another part of our group, the LEAN Multifamily Group, many of you are familiar with that, that does unit buildings with five or more units. In fact, I know one of their reps talked to me and said, “Maybe you can get in to talk them, too.”

We can provide weatherization, full-scale weatherization, air sealing insulation, walls, some repairs, attic insulation, and so forth. Fifty percent of the units in a multifamily building have to be eligible, income eligible in the program. If you have a three-decker and the person on the first floor and the third floor is eligible, we can insulate the whole building.

Heating systems. Heating systems, historically through our programs, could only be done for the homeowners. Eversource, I didn’t say National Grid, Eversource is currently replacing heating systems for some tenants, even if they are parlor heaters. There are a couple of systems that they can direct vent and they can replace these for the eligible tenants in these buildings. If your tenants are eligible, we can help arrange this.

I’ve got the fliers for you, and I want to encourage you to encourage them to apply. We have a fine line, part of the other reason that this program has never been directed to the landlords before, is that tenants don’t always tell you the truth. Am I right? Some tenants don’t want you to know that they’re eligible for fuel assistance. Sometimes tenants have told you on an application that they have a certain income that they no longer have and they’re afraid. Sometimes tenants might have a citizenship issue that they told you they didn’t have and they’re afraid. There’s a lot of reasons people are afraid.


Our programs, because the benefited is direct to the tenant, who is our client, has to come from the ones in needs of the tenant. What we are really working on is helping that partnership to be made, so if you know you have a three-family home and you feel that people are likely eligible for this program, you can give them the flyer and say, “I talked to the lady at the landlord thing. She says not that complicated.” I know you hear it’s a lot of paperwork. Sometimes people hear that the programs run out of money, that just might mean that one person who received a benefit used up their benefit. It doesn’t mean we can’t take more applications.

We take applications from November 1st until April 30th every year. In most years, the application dates are extended another couple of weeks into May, and we make all the payments through the summer as our bills come in. It is a fine line, but we are willing to walk that with you. Most of our funding for weatherization comes from National Grid and Eversource. Our directors and our criteria for the work we do is directed by the Department of Energy.

Ned here works for one of our companies that does the work. They’re great energy protectors. They’re great contractors of ours, and I know that Josh is one of our go-to guys when we have a complicated job. We want to make sure that the crew chiefs, all of these people, are highly trained, highly certified, highly managed. Our program has a lot of oversight. We go back sometimes three times to review a site, which might be exhausting, but if we’re misappropriating the federal funding, we’re all in trouble. We have a lot of oversight to keep us on our toes and keep us honest.

With that, I might open it to some questions. I know I gave you a lot of information. Let me just say one thing: condos are a funny situation. Not everything always applies to condos.

Rich: Okay, so to review a couple of key points, what we commonly hear of is fuel assistance. We really use it. We should just eliminate the word fuel and just think of heat assistance, right?

Mary: Right. Heating assistance. There are billboards all around the state now that say, “You work hard. Heat is expensive.” There’s a phone umber and a website on there. That’s all the community action you need to see is working together to kind of streamline our message and get people to think about us in a different way, so that’s a great point.

Rich: Well it was your point but thank you.

Mary: [laughter] You’re welcome.

Rich: On your first slide, you had the number of occupants and the income that goes along with it. Is it with six people with—who has an apartment with six people in it? Is that six adults or is that like a couple and four kids?

Mary: Anything.

Rich: Anything?

Mary: Any combination of people.

Rich: They had to be people.

Mary: We don’t count pets. We don’t count unborn children yet. People call all the time. They’re like, “Well, my pregnant. Can I be?” If say your tenant applies in October and November, and then they have a baby. Have them call us back, we might be able to increase the benefit. Say your client loses their job, we might be able to increase the benefit. We’re not going to decrease their benefit, but if people have life changes during the year, and it happens to everybody. It’s happened to my family. Somebody gets laid off. Somebody gets sick. It’s tough for a lot of people. people are living in poverty, it’s ten times harder to do many things, and it’s an obstacle. It’s an ongoing thing, so we can release some of these from them. We’re hoping that it will help.

I see people taking pictures. This is all on handouts outside the door.

Rich: That was what I was going to ask. This income chart is on the handouts?

Mary: Yes.

Rich: Okay, all right. If you can’t see that in the back, Mary brought a whole bunch of stuff out here, so on your way out, develop a whole pile. I’m going to go around. Just a second, Scott.

Mary: And our website is

Rich: That’s easy. What we’re talking about tonight and what our questions are going to be are for one to four units because the five units in one building is a different program?


Mary: Right.

Rich: That’s going to be at our February meeting. Okay, so—

Mary: Can I have some general questions with that? All right, cool.

Rich: So I’m going to start making my way back to Scott okay. Here we go.

Scott: Thank you. Did I hear when you first started your presentation, I think you made a comment somewhat to if a tenant is already on some sort of assistance program that pays let’s say a part of their rent, that they don’t qualify or would they still qualify?

Mary: Good question. Like I said that guidance, I tried very hard not to say too much because it can be confusing. If your tenant receives a subsidy and they’re paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent, and yet they’re receiving a subsidy, we will prorate their benefit a little bit because if we gave a full benefit to somebody who is getting a full subsidy, it’s really double dipping.

If someone’s heat is included in their rent and they receive a subsidy, then they’re not eligible, but I always say just send them to us. Let us be the bad guys. Don’t ever try and qualify or prequalify or anything anybody. Send them to us or have them look at the videos on our website and decide for themselves.

Rich: But even outside of this stuff, if you don’t have electric heat, I mean everybody uses electricity, right? National Grid has a low-income form that whenever we’re screening residents at Gwendolyn Property Management, if we notice that somebody gets SSI or food stamps as a big one, we just fill up the form for them, have them sign it and we fax it to National Grid for them. before they move in, they’re already getting that 25 percent or 29 percent or whatever that is.

We’ve just seen today. They brought in a roommate who gets SSI, so we told them, “Hey, you can switch your utility to your roommate’s name and I will start reducing your bill.

Mary: You wouldn’t believe how many of those people think that that is fuel assistance. That’s why we want to know that there is on-bill payment second part to it, so the discount and the payment.

Male Audience 2: Mary, forgive me upfront, but you say that it didn’t matter if you’re a citizen or a refugee, or an immigrant without citizenship?

Mary: There is a citizenship eligibility requirement. Everybody has to prove that they have citizenship or a qualified legal alien, so many refugees are eligible. People who are completely undocumented are ineligible. Say a household has five people and the parents are undocumented but the children were born at memorial hospital. We will prorate their benefit. If they report what they earn and we verify it, they get three legal recipients of this benefit, we will pay them.

Male Audience 3: You said you go back to their old bill.

Mary: If they have old bills, it’s kind of secondary deal but we will work with them because financial capability as part of what we do in all of our programs, so we want to help people understand how they can pull that back to a positive feature.

Male Audience 3: Rich, that form you said you had for electricity, is that available? Where can I find that because I’m interested in it?

Mary: It’s right online. If you go to National Grid and type “low income” in the search, it will bring that form right up. You can print it and fax it.

Rich: I know I should do that. I actually just saved the link to it in a spreadsheet, so if they ever update a thing, it automatically populates.

Mary: And Eversource does the same thing.

Male Audience 4: Is it just based on income or you include assets? For example, my mother she’s on a very low fixed income, but she has assets. Do you hold that against them?

Mary: There is no asset test, and that’s the benefit of the seniors. We don’t want people to take – I mean people live a long time now. We don’t want to take out their last $5,000 for heating system, so we don’t count it.

Male Audience 4: My question is about student tenants, maybe with cosigners. Is there any income requirement of the cosigners or like they dig into that?

Mary: If a student is living alone in your apartment or in a family and they happen to be students, we have to verify how they’re supporting themselves. Sometimes, students’ income is their Pell Grant and we count that as their income. That’s all fine. I think when you get into an apartment that maybe three college students are sharing, then they’re not a traditional household and they’re generally also supported by their families. They’re considered to be supported by their families. But if they’re self-sufficient adults and we can qualify them as separate economic units, sometimes there’s a complicated way of doing that.


Male Audience 5: You’re saying in that scenario, three students that are unrelated going to college, they wouldn’t qualify?

Mary: Generally that’s the answer, yes.

Rich: All right, we have another one.

Dave: Yes. would the natural gas heat, I have gas-on-gas stoves, would you replace the gas heater and plumb in it and I just have to worry about the stove?

Mary: We might be able to do the whole thing. We look at it and do as much of it as we can.

Rich: That’s exciting.

Mary: That’s new with Eversource in Worcester. I don't think National Grid is doing it where there is National Grid service, but Eversource has been very generous in doing heating systems, even the gas-on-gas in the area.

Rich: Okay, so in your handouts out here is the actual thing that people fill out if they want to write on something or the residents or do they just sign up online like what’s step 1 for the resident to sign up on this?

Mary: Step 1, I would ask you to inform all of your tenants about the fuel assistance and heating assistance programs.

Female Audience 1: [unintelligible 0:21:32] I have the oldest [unintelligible 0:21:38] normal-type boiler and it heats three floors, so my tenants all pay the same rent more or less. But right now, I know one of them is poor, what would qualify. The other apartment is empty, and then the other apartment, the people make too much money. How do you deal with something like that? I mean it’s a 100-year-old boiler. I’d love to get rid of it. Would that even be considered?

Mary: Yes. If there is a split-heating system and a lot of our old real estate were old funky conversions that people have done all sorts of things with, and if it’s one boiler for three units, each eligible apartment would get their own benefit level, but we would only pay one third of the heating bill for that person. When oil was delivered to the house, if it was oil, then we’d only pay one-third of the bill. But that said, if you’re eligible at all, the other things all fall into place.

Rich: If people come up with additional questions, how can they get those answered?

Mary: I brought business cards of mine. Our energy department has its own direct and we have an admin person that answers the phone there. You can contact the agency directly and feel free to call, say, “I talked to Mary.” I’m the only Mary in the place, which is very unusual, and we can run a [unintelligible 0:23:11]. I mean I’m happy to look up your buildings and tell you if we have people already eligible.

It’s very early in the program for this year, so some people we mailed. If they received the benefit last year, we mail their recertification to them and they haven’t sent it back yet. If they apply late in the year, they’re paid retroactively back to November 1st, so we get the entire benefits spelled out.

But feel to email. It’s probably the easiest and fastest way to call us. It is a very busy time of year because the season has just started for the LIPHEAP applications. We started November 1st. If there is snow in the forecast, our phones ring off the hook, I apologize in advance. But let me give you one other point, I forgot to make. I have two more minutes.

On the weatherization, as you all know knob and tube is an issue. We can’t blow cellulose into spaces that have live knob and tube. We will send an electrician out to do an inspection. We do have money to remediate knob and tube, but we don't have enough money to remediate all knob and tube.

If you’re really eager to get your building weatherized and skip the line and you want to pay for your own knob and tube remediation, you can consider that. we will work with you on that. that’s the big thing. I think it’s your investment and it’s the tenant’s investment, and you can wait in the line. I think I we [unintelligible 0:24:36] we probably have 100 three-deckers waiting for knob and tube remediation.

The utilities are good, but they’re not that good. But for $2,500 or $3,000, you skip the line, we can get you done by the spring, you know what I mean, hopefully. We’re really invested in moving people out, so give that some thought. When the electrician does the inspection, we can get an estimate right from him of what’s going to cost to take care of the job and you can decide at that time if you want to do-it-yourself.

Rich: Outstanding. Let’s hear it for Mary Knittle.

Audience: [applause]

Rich: Of the Worcester Community Action Council.

Mary: Thank you.


[End 0:25:22]

This is part of the Worcester Rental Real Estate Networking and Training series.