New Congress must make utility and rent relief a priority

New Congress must make utility and rent relief a priority
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Before the pandemic, millions of Americans lived from paycheck to paycheck. Most were one crisis away from losing everything, including their homes. Now, many of these families have lost their jobs, have seen their hours reduced at work or have had to stay home to help their children study remotely until schools reopen. We know from the long lines seen at food pantries around the nation that millions of Americans are living precariously, on the edge of sinking into homelessness.

The numbers are heartbreaking. One out of three families has reported that they struggle to pay their home energy bills. And for minority groups, those that have been hardest hit by COVID, the numbers reporting that they struggle to pay their home energy bills are even higher: 50 percent of African American households, 40 percent of Latinx households and 60 percent of Native American households.

The long-delayed stimulus bill recently passed by Congress, included $25 billion to provide a lifeline that will help up to 5 million families facing eviction for not paying their rent and utility bills. The legislation also included a one-month extension through Jan. 31 on the current moratorium on evictions. But it is not enough to help all families facing eviction, and it does not help those who are behind on their utility bills.

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Estimates of outstanding rent and utility bills have run as high as $70 billion. This amounts to as much at $5,400 for each struggling family. These outstanding debts will only continue to grow until the economy begins to recover.

This is why it is absolutely critical that the next Congress, working with a new Biden administration, get serious about dedicating enough funding to help these Americans who are struggling to pay their rent and utilities. If we forsake these families, many will descend into homelessness and become an even greater financial burden on our social safety net. But worse, is the cost of human suffering and the trauma for children who are now homeless.

The good news though is that there is an existing federal program that can help Congress address the inability of millions of Americans to afford their utility bills — but this program needs resources, and Congress and the Biden administration must step up.

In fact, today, all 50 states and the District of Colombia contract with a network of more than 1,000 local community action agencies to distribute funds under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP is so important because it allows people to pay their utilities with federal assistance, rather than accruing debts that continue to grow.

But regrettably, these local community action agencies are struggling to sign up families not just for energy assistance but also housing, food and other social service programs. They are underfunded and are now further burdened by COVID safety restrictions. Many will be asked to now sign up families quickly for rental and utility assistance as well before the eviction moratorium expires.

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Because there is no outstanding list of Americans who are behind on their rent and utility bills, people will have to sign up for assistance through a local nonprofit agency and that will require documentation and processing. It can be done, but not by the end of January. This is why the current COVID-19 relief legislation is not sufficient, and Congress must act again soon.

Listening to these community action agencies is essential. According to John J. Drew, President/CEO, Action for Boston Community Development, "The victims of the current economic collapse are coming through our doors — low-income workers, elderly, disabled — all struggling to put food on their tables and hold off evictions in the midst of a bitter New England winter following several months without federal unemployment assistance."

Drew said that last year's LIHEAP funding will not provide enough fuel and utility assistance for the unprecedented 2020-21 year. He added: "The next six months are critical. We are pleading now, on behalf of the millions facing homelessness, cold, and food deprivation, for a major federal commitment beyond the pending funds, to save lives and keep our most vulnerable neighbors, friends and loved ones safe and secure."

The next Congress and President-elect Biden must move quickly to build on the $25 billion in rental and utility assistance. First, the President can extend the rental moratorium through the end of March, giving local relief agencies time to help families pay their outstanding rent and utility bills. Second, the Congress can provide an additional appropriation of $25 billion to help with rent and a separate appropriation for LIHEAP of $10 billion for outstanding utility bills.

It’s the right thing to do. And in these times of national crises, this action will give comfort to millions of struggling families.

Mark Wolfe is an energy economist who serves as the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, representing state directors of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).