Pilot Program Seeks to Help Allegheny Co. Families Deal with Energy Costs

Mar 26, 2013

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle applauds new energy initiative that seeks to prevent home foreclosure in Allegheny County.
Credit Margaret J. Krauss / 90.5 WESA

A pilot program in Allegheny County seeks to keep families in their homes by lowering their energy bills.

The Energy Efficiency Foreclosure Prevention Initiative (EEFPI) is a partnership between the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA), ACTION-Housing, Inc. and four area utility companies.

Improving the energy efficiency of a home might seem like a luxury, or a project one might undertake with a few weekends to kill. But for low-income families, saving money on energy bills could mean the difference between keeping or losing their homes, said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA-14).

Doyle said that many of his constituents pay their bills on time, doing their best with a tight budget. But with little disposal income, many families are generally one unforeseen disaster away from defaulting on a mortgage payment.

While there are ways to address those instances, sometimes people don’t know negotiation is possible, Doyle added.

“It’s tough for people sometimes to pick up the phone and say to a utility company or to a mortgage company, ‘I can’t afford to pay you this month,’” he said.

Larry Swanson, executive director of ACTION-Housing, Inc, said making people aware of their financial options and giving them points of contact in a crisis is key to keeping families in their homes.

“If we can get people to talk to us early on when they start to experience problems in terms of meeting their utility bills, meeting their mortgage payments, we have the best opportunity to resolve the matter so the homeowner stays in their home and all the bills get paid,” he said.

EEFPI will offer both home improvements and financial counseling at no cost to 200 Allegheny County families living at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

PHFA allocated $250,000 to the program.

ACTION-Housing, Inc. will run the initiative. The funds provided by PHFA will pay for administrative costs, funneling qualifying families to the four partnering area utilities: Columbia Gas, Duquesne Light, Equitable Gas and Peoples Natural Gas.

The partnering utilities also will contribute approximately $750,000 in time and resources to the program.

PHFA Executive Director and CEO, Brian Hudson, said even modest changes that increase a home's energy efficiency can be a big help for families.

“When you talk about caulking, sealing the windows, improving the efficiency of the HVAC system, those can be substantial savings for those particular homeowners,” he said.

The utility companies already have existing energy efficiency initiatives but have had trouble getting people to participate.

“They don’t like handouts; we don’t like charity in western Pennsylvania,” said Mark Kempic, president of Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania. “We need something like this pilot program to really encourage the people in Allegheny County to take part in these programs and take advantage of the benefits.”

By bolstering financial education, as well as offering physical home improvements, Doyle said the initiative would pad family budgets and decrease the instances of home foreclosure in Allegheny County.

“This is thinking outside the box," he said. "This is bringing people together for some commonsense solutions. Energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit out there. It’s something we can do easily. People realize: You save a little bit of money on your energy bill, that’s more disposable income you have for your family.”