Grantees in many areas have found that engaging local utility companies and partnering with other utility assistance programs can make the delivery of assistance to households in need more efficient and effective.
- Working with Energy Providers to Increase Efficiency and Reach
- Coordination with Other Utility Assistance Programs
Working with Energy Providers to Increase Efficiency and Reach
Strategic coordination and data sharing with utility companies can help promote the utility assistance options available to vulnerable households, increase program efficiency, and connect households to a broader range of housing support services. Promising practices include:
- Encouraging energy providers to include pamphlets or other educational materials about ERA and other housing and utility assistance programs in their regular mailings to potential applicants.
- Building relationships with energy providers and establishing information sharing protocols that bring transparency to the application process. These practices can expedite the identification of and delivery of assistance to eligible consumers. As discussed in FAQ 38, these strategies may include data sharing and bulk and bundled payment methods.
- Encouraging energy providers to automate processes to proactively identify households in need. For instance, vendors energy providers can coordinate with administering agencies to identify households that may be eligible (i.e. related to COVID-19 financial impact and/or housing instability) and automate the process of providing potential client data to the relevant intake agency where the eligibility/benefit determination is made.
- Entering into vendor agreements that lead to reconnection, pausing service shut-offs, and offering additional consumer protections for households upon application for utility assistance. Grantees may also explore providing forward-looking utility assistance payments over the next several months to low-income families facing high heating costs. For providers of delivered fuels, vendor agreements should include automatic deliveries to households receiving benefits as quickly as possible.
- Collaborating with grantees of other energy assistance programs. This practice can help make it easier for utility companies to build out customer assistance procedures in their operations that work across several programs and can increase the incentives for the utility companies to engage in consumer-friendly practices.
- Expediting payments through partnerships with non-profits to prevent the loss of utility services when the rapid delivery of a payment could reasonably be necessary to prevent the loss of utility services. FAQ 42 provides guidance designed to give grantees flexibility to partner with nonprofit organizations for the purpose of making immediate payments while a household’s application is still being processed.
Richland County, SC
Richland County, SC has developed a strong relationship with the area’s utility company. The county proactively reached out to the company to discuss ERA program benefits and found receptive partners. Upon notification that a tenant has applied for ERA funds, the utility company affords the applicant a grace period that suspends the disconnection process while the ERA program administrators process the requested assisted payment.
City of Memphis and Shelby County, TN
The City of Memphis and Shelby County’s joint program developed a partnership with the local utility company to more quickly identify renters who have started ERA applications. This partnership builds on a relationship these grantees established with the utility company and other local government programs during the ERA program’s initial implementation. While originally involving batches of period notifications, the process has evolved to include direct data sharing. Once identified as an ERA recipient, the applicant receives a grace period for utility payments and, if needed, qualifies for an immediate restoration of services. These procedures afford households in need immediate benefits for applying while affording the program administrators time to make the necessary eligibility determinations and complete the payment process.
State of Connecticut
The State of Connecticut has engaged in a data-driven collaborative effort with all regulated electric utility companies within the state to proactively offer utility assistance to eligible households who have not yet applied for rental assistance through the regular application channels. The local utility partners share data on renters living within a Qualified Census Tract (providing a fact-specific proxy for income eligibility) who have an eligible utility arrearage. Following identification as a likely eligible household, those households receive an email or text in advance of a targeted robocall featuring a recording from the state’s governor offering to pay the utility arrearage. The subsequent call directs the applicant to a live customer service agent who takes them through a series of recorded self-attestations that act as an electronic signature and record of program eligibility—allowing the state’s ERA program to efficiently collect eligibility documentation and quickly issue payments to the utility provider. Applicants also learn about available resources to apply for further rental assistance. Administrators of this program note that public notification and promotion of the robocall script, as well as coordination with all of the utility providers within the state, has helped to support consistent and transparent messaging to ensure availability of these benefits to constituents across the state.
Coordination with Other Utility Assistance Programs
Coordination with other energy assistance programs can support increased overall household awareness of available utility assistance, better addressing the utility needs of local households, and intake and eligibility determination systems that are as transparent, accessible, efficient, and well-coordinated as possible at state and community levels.
ERA Grantee Coordination with Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
LIHEAP is a longstanding source of federal support for households that need assistance with winter heating costs administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Through a nationwide network of governmental and locally-based nonprofit service providers, LIHEAP provides federally funded assistance in managing costs associated with home energy bills, energy crises, weatherization and energy-related minor home repairs.
On November 18, HHS shared a "Dear Colleague" letter to LIHEAP grantees underscoring the benefits of coordination between LIHEAP and ERA programs. HHS coordinated with Treasury staff in preparing a set of promising practices that can help establish a baseline for program administrators beginning that work.
Some promising practices may include:
- Regular Communications Between ERA and LIHEAP Program Leadership – In many cases, these closely-related areas of assistance are available within the same jurisdictions but may be administered through different departments or governmental entities. Establishing regular and thoughtful program leadership communication can ensure awareness of the policies, processes, and systems of their respective program efforts.
- Regular Stakeholder Communications – Establish regular stakeholder communication collaboratively convened by both the LIHEAP and ERA programs with energy providers, local administering agencies, and regulatory authorities, especially related to sharing best practices in program coordination, operational improvements, and outreach to potential eligible households.
- Review of Program Offerings – In preparation for potential increases in winter utility needs, collaborative review of locally-imposed eligibility requirements, the types of assistance offered, and assistance benefit levels can help reveal opportunities to better serve the community. For instance, program administrators may wish to adjust locally imposed caps on benefits, consider offering prospective utility assistance, or explore expanding the range of utilities covered (such as delivered fuels, etc.). This may also include review of the various application processes and adjusting how financial burdens related to increased utility costs might help in documenting COVID-19 financial impact and/or housing instability.
- Developing referral policies between programs – Referral policies and procedures can help match applicants to the most appropriate program to meet their specific situation. For instance, ERA programs may wish to incorporate a policy to refer applicants to LIHEAP when the household is facing a home energy crisis where there is a need to expedite intervention to restore or prevent the loss of services, as the federal LIHEAP statute requires that eligible households applying for crisis assistance receive an intervention to resolve the crisis within 48 hours or within 18 hours for life-threatening situations.
- Coordinated Outreach – Simple and coordinated messaging about utility and related housing stability resources through trusted channels can smooth applicants’ access to the most appropriate program for their situation (e.g. creating shared educational resources to message utility and related housing stability benefits, coordinated public information campaigns, “no wrong door” portals to guide applicants to the right program, etc.).
- Categorical Eligibility – Categorical eligibility can support faster income determination, reduced paperwork burden, and expedited the overall eligibility process. For example, using eligibility for LIHEAP as categorical eligibility for ERA may simplify intake for households seeking assistance from both programs.
- Data Sharing, Linked Application, or Referral Systems – A single "front door" or single intake process across benefit programs can simplify application processes for households. When feasible, establishing protocols for data sharing, linked applications, and/or referral systems with a warm handoff process can help ensure the best match between the household and the assistance program.
ERA Grantee Coordination with Homeowners Assistance Fund
ERA grantees may also consider coordinating with HAF administrators. The purpose of the Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF) is to prevent mortgage delinquencies and defaults, foreclosures, loss of utilities or home energy services, and displacement of homeowners experiencing financial hardship after January 21, 2020. Funds from the HAF may be used for assistance with mortgage payments, homeowner’s insurance, utility payments, and other specified purposes. The law prioritizes funds for homeowners who have experienced the greatest hardships, leveraging local and national income indicators to maximize the impact. Incorporating coordination with HAF program administrators would further serve to improve messaging, operational implementation, and overall program effectiveness of providing a range of utility assistance programs locally.