For the first time in decades, 10,000 households living in Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) units may get the option to join a city program that offers steep discounts on water and power bills to Seattle’s low-income households.
If all those identified meet the Utility Discount Program’s (UDP) requirements, it will bring the total number of participants to more than 28,000, double what it was in early 2014 and hitting Mayor Ed Murray’s stated enrollment goals for the program two years before his 2018 deadline.
SHA residents didn’t qualify for the UDP in the past because they receive federal rent subsidies that already include a utility allowance meant to alleviate water and power costs.
On the surface, to receive the discount as well as the subsidy looked like “double dipping,” said Jason Johnson, a spokesperson for the Seattle Human Services Department, but an analysis of the excluded families led officials to believe that the policy didn’t make sense.
“We were leaving folks with the lowest incomes out of the mix, and we felt like we had to readdress this,” Johnson said.
The change would be good news for SHA residents for whom utilities are a major expense, even with the allowance factored in.
“Heating and other utilities are expensive,” said Kerry Coughlin, spokesperson for SHA. “Those are substantial bills for people on very limited means.”
Although the potential rule change opens the doors for many in SHA housing, some who receive benefits still won’t qualify. SHA and city officials are still working on the guidelines for the expansion, which will likely go to the Seattle City Council in April, Johnson said.
The UDP offers residents in Seattle City Light (SCL) and Seattle Public Utility (SPU) coverage areas who earn 70 percent of Washington’s median income — $60,108 for a family of four — 60 percent off their electrical service or 50 percent off SPU services.
Those discounts are funded by the utilities’ other customers who pay full price.
In 2014, the average enrollee saved $523 on their power bill and $600 on their water bill through SCL and SPU, respectively.
Other rate payers subsidize the program to the tune of $21 per year for power and $23.40 per year for water, according to a city report.
Despite those savings, the program was chronically under-enrolled: City officials estimated in mid-2015 that 75,000 people were likely eligible for the benefit, although just under 18,000 had signed up at that time. (RC, “Utility Discount Program to add thousands to roster,” Aug. 19, 2015).
Officials pointed to poor marketing and the complex application process as potential culprits. To enroll, bill-payers had to submit proof not only of their income, but that of every member of their household over the age of 18, as well as verification of their living situation signed by their landlord.
Both problems have since been fixed, with officials putting heavy emphasis on informing the public about the program and cutting down on the required paperwork by accepting income verification from other sources like SHA, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Washington State Housing Finance Commission.
That flexibility would allow the city to auto-enroll residents using the information they already provide to SHA.
To learn more about the UDP or to apply, call 206.684.0268.