Seattle’s Utility Discount Program (UDP) has been underenrolled for years. Some 75,000 people are likely eligible for the program, according to city estimates, but in 2012 fewer than 14,000 accessed it.
UDP provides low-income households with a 50 to 60 percent discount on their water and power bills if the households meet certain income requirements. A family of four making less than $4,941 a month — 70 percent of the area median income — can receive a discount.
The city has increased its efforts to market the program to qualified households and as of this summer enrollment has grown to nearly 18,000 people since 2012.
Following a new partnership between the city of Seattle and the Washington State Housing Finance Commission (WSHFC), which tracks low-income housing across the state, enrollment is poised to grow by leaps and bounds this year.
WSHFC tracks housing data on many low-income housing tenants whose incomes meet the city’s standards for the Utility Discount Program. The city of Seattle will automatically enroll those tenants who meet the income requirements. Early estimates from Seattle City Light indicate that Seattle will auto-enroll 4,500 people into the program. Customers will receive notice of their new discount and have the option to opt out of the program.
The city is also partnering with the state to enroll people receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. snap clients will not be auto-enrolled, because the city needs to verify some information. However, they will receive a short form to fill out to be easily enrolled in the UDP.
These are significant changes that will quickly add thousands of people to the UDP roster after years of struggling to sign more people onto the program. Through increased marketing, the city added about 4,000 people to the UDP over a couple of years. The WSHFC partnership could add as many as 5,000 this year alone. The SNAP program has as many as 9,000 who could be eligible for the discount.
“It’s the first real transformational change to this system since it began in the 1980s,” said Gloria Hatcher-Mays of the Human Services Department (HSD), which oversees the UDP.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant lauded the move, saying that opt-out systems are better for social services that are routinely underused, particularly in the case of .
“In the past, the process for applying for the program has been labyrinthine and consequently only a fraction of those who are eligible wind up getting on the program,” Sawant said at an Aug. 12 meeting of the city council’s Energy Committee.
Ed Murray steps in
Shortly after taking office in January 2014, Murray made a commitment to double the enrollment of the program to 28,000 people after he saw how poorly the program was performing. Tens of thousands of people who need assistance paying their utility bills weren’t getting help, and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and Seattle City Light (SCL) were cutting service to thousands of households every year (“A startling disconnect,” RC, Sept. 18, 2013).
Following Murray’s call for increased enrollment, HSD, SCLand SPU created a marketing plan to help people sign up for the program.
Now more people are getting discounts on their utilities, and fewer people are losing power and water. In 2014, SCL cut power to 7,694 households, some 2,000 fewer than in 2013. SPU cut water to 3,044 households, some 500 fewer than in 2013.
But it’s going to take more than marketing to meet Murray’s target of doubling enrollment numbers. The auto-enrollment from WSHFC lists of low-income housing renters and the outreach to snap recipients are potential game changers.
Increasing the program will come at a cost, but the costs are dwarfed by the potential benefit to low-income people. If UDP successfully enrolls 28,000 people by 2018, it will cost $35 million a year. The cost is spread among ratepayers, and should raise a household’s bill by just 0.2 percent, according to Murray’s office. The program ultimately costs a small amount to provide people a significant savings, including those on the UDP. Specifically, the program costs ratepayers about $24 per year and can save low-income customers $800 each year.
Open to all?
One large group of low-income people in Seattle still does not qualify for the program: people who live in federally subsidized housing. However, that could change as the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and the city of Seattle discuss a plan to open up the program.
City code does not allow people who receive the federal subsidy to receive a discount on utilities because they already receive a utility allowance that is built into their rental subsidy. This includes residents in housing provided by Section 8, SHA, the King County Housing Authority and veterans housing.
“It’s because our program is funded by ratepayers,” Hatcher-Mays said. “There was a concern that there would be double dipping.”
Some officials say that if people in federal housing benefit from the udp, their rent could increase