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Boise could expand program to help low-income residents with utility bills

Low-income Boiseans could soon get more of a leg up on their utility bills.

Boise city staff is working on a slate of proposals to increase the aid for customers struggling to pay their water renewal and trash, recycling, and composting bills. This comes as the city looks at hiking rates to pay for a years-long plan to upgrade the existing system, prepare for growth and add water recycling to the city’s repertoire. This will be paid for with a bond over time or all at once in cash, depending on how voters feel in November

To soften the blow, the city is considering more marketing for its existing assistance programs, expanding eligibility to more residents, and helping with deposits to ease the burden of finding new housing. 

What help is out there now?

Heather Buchanan, with the city’s public works department, told city council on Tuesday that the department wants to ensure city utility bills can pay for needed improvements but also not push people out of their homes. 

“We realize a lot of bills are going up for our residents, and that’s not lost on us,” she said. “It’s important that we’re aware of that and the impact that has on our constituents, so we’re doing what we can to help them out.”

Currently, the City of Boise has two primary programs to help the lowest-earning ratepayers with their bills, but neither program has a high participation rate. The first program is a hardship discount that gives eligible customers a 30% discount on their city utility bills. It only has 126 participants who must reapply for the program annually. 

The other program is an emergency assistance program to help income-eligible people who cannot pay their bills immediately and with a $100 credit. It is administered by El-Ada Community Action and is funded with donations from other customers who opt to round their bills up to contribute. It had 66 participants in the last year. 

To qualify, customers must make less than 30% of the area median income or less than $15,713 for a single person for an entire year.

Thousands more Boiseans could be eligible

Buchanan said a major first step would be to publicize the existing programs the city already has to a broader audience. Based on the numbers, she estimates there are 4,200 people in Boise eligible for the program that are, for the most part, not taking advantage of it. She said the city should also use social media, mailers, and other tools to promote the donation program to fund the emergency assistance program. 

Staff is also studying the possibility of a deposit assistance program to help pay the utility deposit for low-income Boiseans. Buchanan said the average cost for a deposit in Boise is $235, which is a barrier for people living paycheck to paycheck to find a new place to rent.

There is also the possibility of increasing the income eligibility to 60% of the area median income and below, which would add another 6,500 households. This would be $31,425 for a single person or $44,888 for a family of four.

Council members weigh assistance to more renters

Members were enthusiastic about the idea but had some questions about the nuts and bolts of how it would work. 

City Council Member Patrick Bageant noted that most residents who fall into these income categories likely don’t own their own homes and might not pay their own utility bills. He suggested creating a partnership with landlords to give the benefit that way, so renters aren’t shut out. 

“I don’t know if we have a way to know how many (renters who don’t pay their utility bill) there are or where they are, but if it turns out there are a lot of them, a place we could explore is by talking to landlords,” he said. “We could say if some percentage of your tenants are at some threshold, we will lower your utility bill, and we would require that benefit be passed on to the tenants in rent.”

City Council President Elaine Clegg agreed, noting that she would like to see the city increase the amount of its lowest-income residents on the assistance program before expanding eligibility. She said the city should make sure all of the residents living in the city’s own affordable housing units are on the program and that the city should work with the Boise City Ada County Housing Authority to find participants. 

She also suggested reaching out to owners of rental units with affordable rent for upgrades on energy efficiency assistance. However, she noted that before giving a final thumbs up for the plan, she would like to see numbers on how much it would cost to add deposit assistance and expand the eligibility for the program. 

“I like the idea to work with landlords and was going to suggest that given that we participate in energy efficiency programs with homes and individual single-family homes that perhaps small landlords that are renting to this very low-income group we could provide energy efficiency assistance to them as well which would naturally lower the bills without us having to subsidize it.”

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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