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How changes to federal funding allocation can help more Arizonans with cooling costs

air conditioning repair
Annika Cline/KJZZ
Stephen Gamst washes an air conditioner off at a home in Phoenix.

As the heat gets deadlier here in Phoenix, federal dollars meant to help low income households pay for energy is largely not going to help Arizona families keep their homes cool in the summer. Instead, it mostly goes to help families in other parts of the country keep their homes warm in the winter.

It’s called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. And the imbalance is nothing new. In fact, Politico found that about 5.3 million households in the U.S. got heating assistance in the last two decades. The number that got cooling? Just 635,000.

It’s a problem that Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs has noticed as well. Earlier this year, she wrote a letter to Congress asking them to fix what she called “the long-standing unequal distribution” of the program.

The Show's Lauren Gilger spoke more about it with Patricia Solis, executive director of the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at Arizona State University, which put together an extensive report for the governor on extreme heat preparedness in Arizona after last summer’s record heat.

Full conversation

PATRICIA SOLIS: It really is true that on the whole, the latest numbers that I have seen, which I believe were from last year in 2023 about five times more funding nationally goes for helping people with their bills to pay for heating their homes during cold season, then goes for paying bills for air conditioning and cooling people's homes.

So it definitely is disproportionate. Some of that is because of the way that the allocation has been made. You know, the formula at the beginning was really for that purpose in the 1970s to help people with, you know, the high fossil fuel bills for heating. And so it really hasn't involved a whole lot.

There have been a couple of adjustments over the years, but you know, the criticism from the state leadership is not out of line with the realities that it is disproportionately going to states for paying for heating.

LAUREN GILGER: Right. So do you agree that there should sort of be a reanalysis of not just this program but programs like this just thinking about the heat as you know, for example, an emergency situation or, you know, something that requires FEMA’s help or something that qualifies for a good amount of help from LIHEAP. But it sounds like there, we're at a moment when maybe we need to shift our point of view on the heat and what it means.

SOLIS: Yeah, you know, one of the reasons why I think this focus on the LIHEAP program is a good one is because it does work if there's just not enough of it. So the, the problem is, you know, it's a federal block grant program. So it goes to the States, but the states in the South and in the Southwest are actually getting much lower than their share if you look at what the actual energy burden is now as we're getting into hotter and hotter summers.

So that's what I think the concern is about Arizona in particular only receives about 0.4% of the national allocation. And if you say, well, there's 50 states and that should be about 2% if you don't account for like eligible population if you look just at a, at a basic state by state allocation as a block grant.

So, you know, I think that there is some concern about making sure that the allocations are fair, but also we just need more of them and they do, they do work in, in the sense of we have an infrastructure in place to distribute them. They are going to the households who need them. There's just not enough to go around.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. So I know you've looked at this issue of cooling solutions in our state much more broadly and made many recommendations to the governor's office about what might be at the top of that list, what might be priorities we can focus on LIHEAP is one of them in rethinking that. What are some other solutions that you think we really need to take a closer look at here.

SOLIS: Yes, indeed. One of our recommendations was that the office of the governor does look at this LIHEAP program and try to track it better. But you know, there are some gaps in the way that that light heap can get distributed. Just because there is an income eligibility program and there might be people who are households in need that are not actually eligible for LIHEAP for various reasons. People who live in homes that are not eligible for the utility assistance. For example, people who live in mobile manufactured housing may or may not be direct customers of the utilities. So it's much harder for them to access sometimes and maybe their household income just might be above that threshold, but they're on a fixed income and they're homes need cooling.

And then there are some other programs which will help people with their energy efficiencies, but sometimes it's just a matter of, of keeping people cool and comfortable and, and the thermal comfort, right? So you could pay the same amount right now, you have to pay, you know, $300 or $400 to just keep it at, you know, 78 degrees or something. But if, if you had some weatherization assistance, you might still end up paying about that same amount only you'd be able to keep your home a little bit cooler. And a little bit safer, especially for people who might have health issues.

GILGER: Yeah, a big part of this and I know you talked about this in your report as well is, is working with the federal government or even the private sector, right? Like partnerships that can address these kinds of issues in a broader way, in a bigger way with more money. Is that an important part of this?

SOLIS: Yeah, I think we need to invest more in those things that are working well to reach more eligible households and expand the eligibility because you know, heat really does affect a lot of households and not just the poorest. I mean, we all have to find ways to cope with the heat. And I think that more investment to things that are working is good, but I think we need to do things in innovative ways and, and some of our report recommendations is trying to capture that.

For example, some of the limitations on expanding these are not just the dollars but the workforce, which I think is a positive thing for Arizona to think about how can we expand our workforce in ways that allow us to be more heat resilient? How can we improve housing and not just the utility infrastructure but better housing and housing security.

So if you think about it as a whole, Arizona could invest in its workforce in terms of you know, energy, especially renewable energy, housing, housing security, health care, HVAC expertise as well as housing retrofits, right? And this whole weatherization, which I think is, is, is one of the reasons why even if we had a lot more funding, we would still need to make sure and develop the workforce to deliver those services that we need.

GILGER: Yeah, you have to have people to do the jobs. Let me ask you lastly about the moment that we're in. Like, do you think that there is beginning to be not just here in Arizona, but nationwide and maybe even worldwide a change a shift in the way that we think about heat and heat preparedness and sort of a rethinking prompting some of these changes that you're recommending. Are we, are we on the road?

SOLIS: Yes, I think that you know, a lot of people around here have given this a lot of thought over many, many years and we have evolved our thinking over time. But you're right that there seems to be a kind of moment here for heat and extreme heat because we are starting to see increased frequency of heatwaves, increased duration. Other places in the country that have not necessarily experienced this kind of, of a threat are now starting to see these kinds of things.

And so I do think we're coming up on a threshold level of attention and awareness and you mentioned earlier FEMA you know, despite the fact that heat kills more people than any other disaster combined in the United States, it is not considered one of the Stafford Act disasters. It does require a different kind of mindset to think about how to prepare. It's not like a hurricane or floods where you can kind of see it coming. You know, the, the heat wave looks like a sunny day, but we know how dangerous here that it can be. We need to, to prepare, we need to watch out for our neighbors and we need to do a lot more.

GILGER: All right, we'll leave it there. That is Patricia Solis, executive director of the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at Arizona State University, joining us to talk more about cooling solutions and LIHEAP. Patricia, Thank you for coming on. Thank you for explaining this. I appreciate it.

SOLIS: Thank you so much.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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