Senior Spotlight By John Toscano
New York State is shortchanging seniors and low-income people by $100 million on funds used to help them offset their heating costs in the winter, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum charged last week.
In making the charge, Gotbaum called on the state to end years of inequitable distribution of funding payments under the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP).
Gotbaum says the inequity exists because while the city has 54 percent of the state's population living below the poverty level, it received only about 18 percent of HEAP dollars given out by the state last year.
"HEAP is designed to help low-income families pay for heat," Gotbaum said. "Most of the low-income families in the state are here [in New York City]. So why don't we receive most of the money? There's no good reason at all. It's time we got our fair share of this assistance."
Low-income homeowners and tenants who pay directly for heat are currently eligible for a minimum benefit of $165, Gotbaum explained. However, tenants who pay for heat as a portion of their rent and are eligible for HEAP receive only $40 or $50 annually, she said.
Fuel costs increased by 22.8 percent this winter and building owners were allowed to pass on the increased costs to tenants, Gotbaum said. Yet HEAP benefits have remained essentially flat, further straining the resources of low-income tenants.
To address the funding inequity for renters, Gotbaum is calling on the state to raise the minimum benefit for renters to $165, matching the minimum provided to homeowners.
"Renters pay just as much for heat as homeowners and they're just as likely to face a heating crisis," Gotbaum reasoned. "The extra money would go a long way towards keeping their families warm in winter."
Pointing out the large number of people in need of heating aid, Gotbaum said, "Every winter, thousands of New York City residents with limited resources struggle to stay warm in apartments that are inadequately heated."
The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), she said, received more than 124,000 heat and hot water complaints and issued more then 11,300 heat and hot water violations in Fiscal Year 2006.
A low-income person who lives in an inadequately heated home may be forced to scrimp on food and medicine in order to purchase space heaters or may attempt to heat a home with stove ovens, risking carbon monoxide poisoning or fire.
Over the years, Gotbaum said, the New York state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has directed the bulk of HEAP funding to upstate households. This inequality of distribution must be corrected, she said.