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A woman uses a fire to provide heat in her home

Linda McCoy throws wood on a fire for heat in her home in Houston, Texas on February 17, 2021. (Photo: Mark Felix for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

'A Basic Human Right': Bowman, Markey Unveil Affordable Energy Bill

Sen. Ed Markey called the proposal "the ambitious and comprehensive legislation we need to help ensure the health and safety of American families and support a just transition away from fossil fuel consumption."

Julia Conley

Pledging to end the "life and death crisis of energy injustice" in the U.S., Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Sen. Ed Markey on Thursday introduced a bill to expand federal investment in energy assistance for low-income households and protect millions of people from utility shutoffs.

The ability to heat and cool one's home is a "basic human right," Bowman said as the lawmakers introduced the Heating and Cooling Relief Act. Yet one-third of Americans experiences some form of energy insecurity, the New York Democrat noted on social media.

"There is no reason why, in the richest nation on Earth, people in our communities should be forced to choose between staying warm in the winter or cool in the summer and being able to make rent or put food on the table," said Bowman.

The Heating and Cooling Relief Act would increase annual funding and expand eligibility for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is meant to help families manage the cost of home energy bills, energy crises, weatherization, and home repairs related to energy.

"The Heating and Cooling Relief Act is the ambitious and comprehensive legislation we need to help ensure the health and safety of American families."

"The net result" of the bill, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA), "will be an end to the stubbornly high utility arrears and shutoffs that low income families have been struggling with for many years."

Households that earn up to 150% of the poverty level are eligible for LIHEAP, but only 16% of families who meet eligibility requirements—which must be proven with an "assets test," proof of residence in non-subsidized housing, or receipt of a utility shutoff notice—are actually served by the program, according to Bowman and Markey.

"I am grateful that Congressman Bowman and I are fighting to make sure that home energy funding—a critical lifeline for families throughout the country—will be available to all of those who need it," said Markey (D-Mass.). "Our Heating and Cooling Relief Act would provide LIHEAP funding to millions more Americans and ensure that the program has all the support it needs to enhance outreach efforts and serve all eligible households."

The Heating and Cooling Relief Act would:

  • Increase annual funding for LIHEAP to $40 billion and expand eligibility to ensure no household has to pay more than 4% of its annual income on energy costs;
  • Allow households to self-attest to eligibility criteria to minimize barriers to aid;
  • Ensure no eligible household experiences utility shutoffs or is made to pay late fees and clear utility debt for families receiving LIHEAP assistance;
  • Increase weatherization funding through LIHEAP;
  • Allow states to use LIHEAP to address climate adaptation and ensure households can access utility aid during major disasters; and
  • Establish a new Just Transition Grant for states and localities to help reduce energy burdens for LIHEAP-eligible households and promote renewable energy usage.

Increasing investment in weatherizing homes would both "reduce the energy burdens of LIHEAP recipients and cut down our fossil fuel use," said Markey, who co-authored the Green New Deal resolution first introduced in 2019. "The Heating and Cooling Relief Act is the ambitious and comprehensive legislation we need to help ensure the health and safety of American families and support a just transition away from fossil fuel consumption."

Bowman called the passage of the Heating and Cooling Relief Act a matter of racial justice, noting that Black, Latino, and Indigenous households are more likely to face energy insecurity and utility shutoffs.

"The lack of energy assistance is also a public health crisis, with high energy burdens associated with a greater risk for respiratory diseases and heat strokes," said Bowman.

Bowman and Markey introduced the legislation less than two weeks after a malfunctioning space heater in a Bronx apartment building led to a fire that killed 17 people. Tenants in the building reported that the use of space heaters is common in the winter as they struggle with insufficient heat.

"The rise in home heating costs this season may explain why some landlords might skimp on fuel, leading a tenant to supplement with an oven, stove, or space heater," wrote Diana Hernandez in the New York Daily News last week. "In addition, the Bronx has the highest concentration of energy-burdened households, meaning that they allocate a disproportionate share of household income to utility bills."

The Heating and Cooling Relief Act is endorsed by groups including Public Citizen, the National Consumer Law Center, the National Housing Law Project, and the Sunrise Movement.

"People should not be forced to use a space heater or a stove to stay warm during the winter," said Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.), a co-sponsor of the bill.

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