An existing federal program that could have helped tens of thousands of low-income households in Washington state acquire air conditioning during the heat wave but was not used is now being expanded.
At least 138 people died from heat-related causes during the historic weather event, according to the state Department of Health. Hardest hit were low-income households and people living on the streets and in substandard housing.
Although Washington state receives more than $60 million annually from a federal program intended to help pay utility bills, the state has until now only made those funds available for heating, not cooling.
Now that is changing. According to the state Department of Commerce — which distributes federal dollars through the Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to 77,000 households statewide — Washington will now allow those federal funds to pay for air-conditioning units, repairing or replacing defective ones, and energy bills, the agency said Tuesday in a news release.
No funds have yet been spent on cooling, a state spokesperson told The Olympian on Wednesday, and the expansion won’t begin until Oct. 1.
The federal government does not restrict how LIHEAP funds can be spent. But across the country, heating is what states spent the most LIHEAP dollars on. Eighteen states now use some federal money to provide cooling assistance, but it makes up just 6% of spending.
“There wasn’t a prohibition on cooling, it just wasn’t included in Washington state’s program,” the state spokesperson wrote in an email. “Until recently, our climate had dictated that the primary need for use of the program funds was heating assistance.”
Eligibility is limited to households making up to 150% of the federal poverty level, which is $39,750 for a family of four.
Oregon, which had a similar policy, changed it in 2015, according to an article in E&E News. Other states restrict how funds can be spent in other ways: New York will help pay for purchasing and installing an AC unit, but it won’t pay for electric bills, the outlet reported.
Overall funding for the LIHEAP program has decreased over the past 12 years from $5.1 billion to $3.7 billion.
More information about the LIHEAP program and how to apply is available at www.commerce.wa.gov or by calling 360-725-2857.