The federal energy assistance program that helps New Yorkers with low incomes stay cool in the summer has run out of funds, just 24 days into what’s projected to be a record-breaking summer season.
The program, known as the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), is administered by the state and city and provides emergency and non-emergency cooling services for years to tens of thousands of seniors and households with low incomes. However, on July 14, the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (OTDA) stated that it would not be accepting new applications for assistance this summer due to the exhaustion of cooling assistance funds.
“We’re frustrated because we’ve been saying that the cooling assistance program has needed more money for a very long time, and the cooling assistance funding has run out before,” says Sonal Jessel, director of Policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “And so, how come we’re not learning from mistakes?”
The funding for LIHEAP had been instrumental in providing eligible low-income New Yorkers and seniors and people with documented medical conditions, who are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, with a one-time installation of an air conditioner or fan. Many community organizations and city agencies have advocated for the program to go further by providing additional support for paying energy bills during the summer.
“One A/C often isn’t enough for a family of four, for example,” Jessel says. “You’re picking the room to be cool in.” New Jersey, by comparison, provides a $300 subsidy for LIHEAP participants to pay utility bills, “so we know it can be done,” she adds.
Extreme heat poses a significant health risk, particularly to people in marginalized communities. Heat-related illnesses are deadlier than extreme floods, hurricanes, and storms combined — with mortality rates more than twice as high among Black New Yorkers and an estimated 350 New Yorkers dying prematurely because of hot weather each year. Neighborhoods that are predominantly Black, brown or poor tend to experience higher temperatures and the least shielding from heat.
To stay safe during the summer, it is important to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and take prompt action. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends staying hydrated, wearing lightweight, loose-fitting and breathable clothing, and avoiding direct sun exposure during peak hours in the early afternoons. Taking frequent breaks in shaded or air-conditioned areas and being mindful of the signs of heat-related illness symptoms is essential for everyone’s well-being during hot weather.
In the last fiscal year, $23 million was allocated to assist 23,936 New York households with cooling, with 8,860 of those households in NYC. This year’s allocation of just $15 million has so far reached 9,722 households, including 3,293 in the city. The decrease in funding has raised concerns among some advocates who argue that more financial support is needed to ensure that vulnerable communities are adequately protected from the dangers of extreme heat.
The cooling component of LIHEAP’s budget makes up just 4% of the program’s total, compared to 50% allocated for heating assistance in cooler months. Efforts by environmental and community advocacy organizations, along with New York City agencies, have been ongoing to increase funding for cooling assistance programs. They have pushed for expanded benefits during the summer, such as providing a small monthly subsidy of $40 from May to September to help low-income New Yorkers better afford air conditioning bills. The city’s health department, among others, has also pushed for the health condition stipulation to be dropped, a requirement that was waived during the pandemic.
Despite efforts to secure additional funding, legislative progress has been slow. Last October, the program received $1 billion in temporary funding, which benefited thousands of New York households. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said at the time that he sought to get an additional $4 billion for the final budget. A bill re-introduced by Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) earlier this year to provide more support for the program remains stalled in the Senate.
“It is unacceptable that New York has already run out of funds for cooling this summer, the hottest on record,” Congressman Bowman told the Amsterdam News. “Funding for LIHEAP is an economic and racial justice issue. Failure to sufficiently fund it will disproportionately impact Black, Latino, and Indigenous households, all of whom already experience higher energy burdens. We hear from constituents in my district every day about their struggle to pay their energy bills, and they deserve relief.”
Jessel says that this isn’t the first time that cooling assistance funds have run out before the end of summer, and the city and state are responsible for stepping in when federal funds aren’t enough to ensure that New Yorkers who need the program are able to stay cool.
“The state has not learned over the years of the money running out that we need more money to support people,” she says. “If it’s running out, that means there’s a need.”
Correction: The story has been corrected to say that those eligible for energy assistance include seniors and people with documented medical conditions exacerbated by high temperatures. The original story stated that eligibility included seniors who have documented medical conditions exacerbated by high temperatures.