Mayor announces new actions to expand enrollment in Utility Discount Program

Utility bills will be cut in half for thousands more low-income Seattle families under a new plan to simplify enrollment in the City’s Utility Discount Program (UDP) for those who live in subsidized housing or receive nutrition assistance. The average discount for UDP-enrolled customers is more than $800 a year.

Under a new partnership with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission (WSHFC), any individual or family who lives in a subsidized apartment with income requirements that also meet UDP income eligibility will be automatically enrolled in the utility discount. Residents be informed on Sept. 1.

“Housing costs are the largest expense a family faces in our growing city, and utility bills are no small part of that burden,” said Mayor Ed Murray. “We have one of the most progressive utility discounts in the country, but the administrative burden has been a barrier for too many. Today, we’re making it simple: if you qualify for subsidized housing or food assistance, we will make it easy to cut your utility bills in half.”

The new partnership is an agreement that the Housing Finance Commission will share the addresses of units that fall into the UDP eligibility range so the occupants can be auto enrolled. Residents’ names or other personal information will not be shared. The income of these renters is already verified annually.

“Rent is only one of the costs of housing—utilities take their toll as well,” said WSHFC Chair Karen Miller.  “By sharing this data that we already collect, we can help make housing more affordable for thousands of Seattle residents, and that’s why we’re very excited about this collaboration with the city.”

Up to 5,000 utility customers may benefit from this change. Units that include a federal utility credit would not be eligible.

“We were new to the Seattle area and had very limited income and our apartment manager thoughtfully suggested we apply for the utility discount program,” said Yolanda and Chris, residents in a Bellwether Housing building. It has been very helpful to us since we were approved last October. We try to be conscientious with our energy usage and indeed went under the City Light estimate of usage. Thank you Seattle and Bellwether for your support in helping us make our transition to becoming Seattleites a little easier.”

To ease the application process for other customers, those already enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will no longer be required to provide income verification. Beginning Sept. 1, City staff will now have the ability to verify the customer’s income through SNAP’s Washington Connection database. An estimated 8,500 SNAP recipients in Seattle are eligible to apply for utility discounts through this simplified approach.

The income limit for SNAP is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, which falls within UDP income requirements. The City will conduct random audits of up to 10 percent of enrollees to ensure continued income eligibility.

“All of us at Bellwether are excited to be a part of this partnership. This program will be a great benefit to our residents and will enable everyone who is eligible to auto enroll,” said Doug Daley, executive director of Bellwether Housing. “This will save staff time and – more importantly – will help low-income Seattle families save money each month so they can afford other necessities like food, childcare, clothes and transportation.”

For lower-income customers who qualify, Seattle’s Utility Discount Program offers 50 percent off Public Utilities bills and 60 percent off City Light bills. Nearly 18,000 customers are currently enrolled (an increase of nearly 4,000 since January 2014), but many more are eligible and have not signed up. Murray has set a goal of 28,000 customers enrolled in UDP by the end of 2018.

The income limits for the utility discounts is 70 percent of state median income: $31,000 a year for an individual and $60,000 for a family of four.

“Research has shown decisively that opt-out enrollment for low income programs are far more effective in enrolling eligible households and improving their living standards,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant. “I have been advocating for the Utility Discount Program to switch to opt-out, and I’m glad we are taking a significant step in that direction.”

“Thanks to the Mayor for making improvements to the Utility Discount Program,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. “We are working hand in hand to make the program readily available to all who qualify.  Reducing bureaucracy and speeding the application process are very good outcomes.”

“The Utility Discount Program makes Seattle more affordable for low-income households, and the automatic enrollment is a great example of City and State agencies sharing data and working together to improve service delivery,” said Councilmember John Okamoto.

Additional details and information on how to enroll for the Utility Discount Program is available here.

 In a related move, Murray will send a draft ordinance to Council so that all the City’s utility assistance programs use the standard of 70 percent of state median income to determine eligibility. Seattle City Light administers another program to help customers pay overdue utility bills, the Emergency Low Income Assistance program. Eligible customers can receive one assistance grant every 12 months. The income limit for the program is 125 percent of the federal poverty level, more restrictive than the City’s other utility assistance programs. After the change, an estimated 200 additional City Light customers who receive shut-off notices each year would be eligible for the grant.