Cold Weather Means Unaffordable Utility Bills for Some Families

4 years 3 months 2 weeks ago Friday, February 07 2014 Feb 7, 2014 Friday, February 07, 2014 9:15:00 AM CST February 07, 2014 in News
By: Megan Schultz, KOMU 8 Reporter

COLUMBIA - While many people may take heat for granted during these subzero temperatures, low-income families see properly-working electric systems as a privilege. Columbia Housing Authority CEO Phil Steinhaus spoke Friday about the CHA's need for a grant to help remodel 284 subsidized living unit for elderly, disabled and low-income families.

Steinhaus said affordable housing consists of two parts: affordable rent and affordable utilities. While CHA is able to subsidize rent to make that part of the equation affordable, it doesn't subsidize electricity, meaning utility bills are left up to the families. The problem is the bills are considerably higher during the winter months, making it more difficult for families to pay them.

"If you can only afford $100 or $150 in rent, and your utilities are costing you $300 a month, then you're going to have a hard time making it," Steinhaus said. "If your utility costs are high, that's really difficult on a low-income person."

Jackie, who wouldn't give her last name, is a single mother of twin boys and lives in a CHA house. She said her house is like living in a prison because the cinder block walls fail to keep her house insulated.

"Even though you've got the heat on, it stays cool," Jackie said. "There's like a dampness in the air regardless."

Steinhaus is trying to make Jackie and her neighbors more comfortable. The CHA plans to make renovations to its housing sites, which would include updated and more efficient electrical systems. CHA submitted a bid to the Missouri Housing Development Commission to gain a 9 percent low-income housing tax credit, which would have provided the funds needed for the renovations. The bid was denied.

"We submitted one application in September for renovations to 84 of our downtown units plus modest renovations to Paquin Towers," Steinhaus said. "We did not receive funding for that application, so we hope to submit a new application in the next round of fundings."

At more than 50 years old, some of the public housing doesn't meet building compliances, but have been grandfathered in. While Steinhaus said the homes are safe, he said they could definitely use improved energy efficiency to make utility bills cheaper.

"Our oldest energy sites are very poorly insulated," said Steinhaus. "They're concrete block walls, there's no insulation in the walls. We have done some improvements to add some heat pumps to the units, but the attics are poorly insulated, they have inadequate electrical systems in there. We have plumbing issues that need to be addressed."

It's something that Jackie has experienced personally.

"You can hear the heat come on," she said. "It heats the upstairs and then turn off," she continued. "It makes downstairs a comfortable cool and that's it. My sons need clothes I can't afford an outrageous heating bill."

Steinhaus said the rule of thumb is that a family should spend no more than 30 percent of its household income on utility bills, but poor energy efficiency and colder temperatures could mean that low-incomes families are spending more than that on electricity.

"The winter time is harder on families because you cannot go without heat. In the summer time, if your budget can't afford it, you can open the windows and turn off your air conditioner," Steinhaus said. "It might be hot, but you're not going to die. But in the winter time you have to keep your heat on."

Steinhaus is working on proposing another application for the next round of funding, which will be either this spring or next fall.

In the meantime, Steinhaus suggests wearing layers, using blankets, and doing simple things to keep warm, such as rolling up a blanket and putting it in the crack of a drafty door to keep the warm air in.

That's exactly what Jackie has been doing.

"We have an electric blanket that we use downstairs for the boys when they get cold and other than that we have plenty of blankets on the beds," said Jackie. "It's easier to cover up than to pay a heating bill."

If next fall's funding is accepted, CHA will know by December and will then start renovations.

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