Clark Public Utilities will soon enter its second year of offering a program aimed at keeping low-income renters from being evicted.
The assistance program, run by the utility’s community care department, is restricted to utility customers who earn 125 percent of the federal poverty level or less and participate in the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Since 2002, Clark Public Utilities has administered LIHEAP on behalf of Clark County, which receives about $2 million per year for the program. During the colder months, it provides a few thousand households with financial assistance on their utility bill; the average grant per season, which runs October through June, is $375.
A portion of LIHEAP funds can be used for other emergency services, such as repairing a heater and — since last season — providing emergency rent payments. Gretchen Alexander, low-income programs manager at the utility, said up to 5 percent of the LIHEAP budget can be spent on what it calls “shelter assistance.”
Last season, the budget for the program was $50,000, which helped 75 households remain in their homes by providing landlords an average of $970. By July, 80 percent of those households still had active service accounts with the utility, meaning they hadn’t become homeless after receiving temporary help.
“We’re pretty happy with the results,” said Lisa Fix, director of customer service at Clark Public Utilities. The program benefits people who’ve hit a rough patch and need some quick assistance to get back on their feet.
Alexander learned at a conference that other organizations use a small percentage of LIHEAP funds to provide one-time grants to households that receive 30-day eviction notices. One of the groups Alexander spoke with is Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, more commonly called SNAP, which has used the funds this way for a couple of years. Carol Weltz, director of community action at SNAP, said the organization served 80 households in the Spokane area during the most recent energy season.
Fix said when a customer calls the utility and says they’re having trouble paying their bill, a customer service representative will do an initial screening. If it looks like they could be eligible for a program, they’re directed to the LIHEAP appointment line: 1-855-353-4328. One of the questions asked during the appointment is whether they’re facing eviction. A household has to meet all of the LIHEAP eligibility requirements to receive emergency rent assistance of up to $1,000.
Fix said there’s definitely a need: “It’s a tough market right now for affordable housing.”
She added that the program is not a silver bullet.
Michael Torres, community housing and development manager at Clark County Community Services, said the county takes on a supportive role in the LIHEAP program, giving the utility latitude to run it.
“They saw the possibility and the opportunity there to help the community,” Torres said. “From our interactions with them they’re very community minded.”