Seattle City (spot)Light: Nikitta Vinson

Nikitta Vinson has been with the City of Seattle for twelve years, including her current role as a program intake representative for the Utility Discount Program. “I speak with customers and conduct interviews to see if they meet the program’s eligibility requirements,” Nikitta explained. “We also do community outreach and meet people at different events which is a benefit because it’s often a comfortable environment where people are in their element. There’s also that face-to-face interaction you just don’t have over the phone.”

Nikitta lives near Madrona with her two teenage children—her son Cipher and her daughter Nia. Some of her favorite activities include rollerblading by Alki Beach, walking along Lake Washington and cooking. “I love to make lasagna and my friends and family love to eat it,” she joked. In this week’s (spot)Light, Nikitta talks about the power of food and the importance of building a sense of community.

Nikitta (middle) with her children

“I was born in Seattle, but moved to Eatonville when I was young. Once I graduated from high school, I returned to the city life…it brought me back! I describe Seattle as a great salad bowl. To me, ‘melting pot’ means that once it’s melted, everything is gelled together. With a salad bowl, everything stays the same. Once it’s tossed, it remains integrated which means there’s diversity. And that’s what I was looking for.”

“My parents instilled a love of cooking in me and it’s something I’ve shared with others. Before coming to City Light, I was a teen development leader (later changed to recreation leader) at Parks and Rec. I thought it was important to include cooking as part of the programming—to get the teens in the kitchen working together. Some kids took a little longer to warm up to the idea, but once they got in there, heard the music playing and saw the process, they were engaged. They weren’t focused on trivial matters because everyone was contributing to something that we were all going to consume. So, their thoughts were ‘Yes, I want this to be good’ or ‘Yes, I’m learning a new technique.’ It allowed them to build a sense of community and, with that, more and more kids started to come in and wanted to be involved.”

“Growing up, we had a fish fry every Friday. That’s how our family stayed connected. Even though my dad worked, he made sure we had one. Friends and family would stop by on Fridays because they knew there’d be a fish fry. As a young kid, I didn’t realize the history that went behind that, but it was a tradition—that every Friday there was a meal that brought us together.”

“Now, I have my sense of community by volunteering at Northwest Tap Connection which provides kids with wonderful training in the south end of Seattle–a place that has a negative association. But there is some amazing stuff taking place at that studio. It’s important to me to be there. To be an advocate for the kids and to teach them that they have a voice and that their voice matters. It’s also teaching them how to use that voice through art. To help them understand that they can promote change through an art form, through creativity, through dance.”

You Might Be Eligible for Assistance With Your City Light Bill

The Seattle area just went through its coldest winter in 32 years. The cold weather, coupled with a recent rate increase and a Rate Stabilization Account surcharge, led to unusually high bills for many customers. If you are having trouble paying your City Light bill, there are programs that might help.

“Seattle City Light recognizes that folks who are struggling with finances often make difficult decisions about which bills to pay,” said Customer Care Manager Mat McCudden. “We have numerous options available to assist our most vulnerable customers.”

The first option for customers that need help is the Federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP offers assistance with paying bills along with budget counseling and weatherization services. Depending upon where you live, you can sign up for LIHEAP online or via phone.

City Light has instructions on how to sign up for LIHEAP here.

The City of Seattle also offers the Utility Discount Program (UDP) for income-qualified customers of Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities. In 2016, Mayor Ed Murray made changes to the program’s auto-enrollment that were projected to double enrolled households to 28,000 by 2018. That goal has been exceeded already, but tens of thousands of households that might be eligible have yet to enroll.

Customers enrolled in UDP receive 60 percent off their City Light bills, so if you need help check to see if you meet income requirements and enroll here.

City Light offers its own program for customers who have received an “Urgent” or “Shut-Off” notice on balances of $250 or more. The Emergency Low Income Assistance (ELIA) program offers up to $200 every 12 months for customers who make the minimum payment to avoid disconnection and payment arrangements for the balance.

To get more information or sign up for ELIA, call (206) 684-3688 or email SCL_InfoELIA@seattle.gov.

Finally, there is a program available for LIHEAP or ELIA participants that is funded by donations from City Light employees, customers and other supporters. Project Share takes donations and disburses the money to those in need. Last year, Project Share provided assistance to about 1,000 people. The average benefit for recipients was $250.

Project Share’s one-time emergency assistance grants can make a huge difference in the lives of your friends and neighbors. If you are financially stable, please consider making a donation here. 

“At Seattle City Light, we want to keep your home warm and the lights on,” said McCudden. “Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need a little help.”

City of Seattle brings Utility Discount to 10,000 more households

Today Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) Director Andrew Lofton announced proposed changes to the Utility Discount Program (UDP) to auto-enroll more than 10,000 low-income Seattle Housing Authority households. Today’s announcement puts the City on track to surpass the Mayor’s goal to double program enrollment two years ahead of schedule.

“As Seattle’s economy continues to grow, we know that economic gains have not reached all our neighbors. Too many families are still struggling to meet basic needs,” said Murray.  “This partnership with the Seattle Housing Authority will cut utility bills in half for financially strapped residents so they can manage their utility costs on tight budgets.”

“The majority of people we serve at the Seattle Housing Authority are in the very lowest income segment,” said Lofton. “The extension of the City’s Utility Discount Program to our residents and voucher tenants will make a tremendous difference in their ability to pay for basic utilities and still afford food, medications and other necessities.”

Once auto-enrollment is complete, the UDP will provide more than $10 million in utility assistance each year to SHA tenants. This will cut in half their Seattle electric, water, garbage/recycling, sewage and drainage bills. The average household benefit will be $1,030 per year.

This move is a part of Murray’s commitment to address Seattle’s growing income inequality and remove institutional barriers between services and those in need. In 2014, Mayor Murray challenged City Departments to double the number of households enrolled in the UDP from 14,000 to 28,000 by the end of 2018.

“I would like to thank SHA for providing a place to stay and the Mayor for giving those of us living in subsidized housing the opportunity to participate in the Utility Discount Program,” said Ed Frezier, a resident at Rainier Vista in South Seattle. “I am on disability and have a limited income. After I pay my bills, the lights, phone, water, there’s nothing left.  This will leave me with a few dollars to buy groceries and whatever else is needed. It’s a blessing.”

After legislation to enact today’s proposal is approved by the Seattle City Council, all income-eligible households of Seattle Housing Authority will be notified that they have been auto-enrolled in the Utility Discount Program, beginning August 1, 2016. All households will have the opportunity to opt out of the Utility Discount Program if they prefer. The Council will take up this proposal this spring. Current City ordinances prevent SHA tenants from participating in the program.

The Utility Discount Program offers a credit of 60 percent on Seattle City Light bills and 50 percent on Seattle Public Utilities bills. This program is available for residential City Light and Seattle Public Utilities customers only and does not apply to residences used for business purposes. Eligible households must have income of less than 70 percent of state median household income, about $60,000 for a family of four.

Today’s expansion of the UDP to SHA tenants is paid for by all utility customers. The average Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities bill will increase between 0.5 percent and 0.65 percent in coming years.

“This auto-enrollment program change supports people in need and minimizes bureaucracy.  This is truly government at its best,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents the West Seattle and South Park communities.  “Thousands of low-income Seattleites will no longer need to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.  I’m fully committed to expanding access to the UDP program even further.”

“Having light, heat, and water are basic needs that every resident should have,” said Council President Bruce Harrell. “As a compassionate City, we have demonstrated our commitment to helping our residents by continually improving one of the strongest utility discount programs in the nation.”

“I have strenuously advocated for auto-enrollment into the Utility Discount Program. Studies show auto-enrollment results in systematically greater access,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant, chair of the Energy and Environment Committee. “I am grateful to Kelly Enright at Seattle City Light for tirelessly working on this. Even after this step, there will still be thousands of others who will need to be enrolled, and I look forward to continue working with City Light and the Mayor’s office.”

This program expansion builds upon a partnership with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission to auto-enroll eligible households of other affordable housing projects, reducing administrative barriers to utility discount services.

Ray Hoffman, Seattle Public Utilities Director, Larry Weis, Seattle City Light General Manager and CEO, and Catherine Lester, Human Services Department Director, were also in attendance at today’s event.

The UDP program is funded by both Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities and is administered by the Seattle Human Services Department. Utility Discount Program eligibility information and application materials can be found here.

Applying for the Utility Discount Program Easier than Ever

Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, and Human Services Department have been working in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office to identify and eliminate enrollment barriers for the Utility Discount Program. 

As of this week, one of those barriers is now gone. Rather than the previous requirement of three months income verification, there is now just one month verification needed for most applications. 

“This is a huge step in streamlining the process and opening opportunities for potential participants in the program” explains Utility Discount Program supervisor Chaney Kilpatrick-Goodwill . “In the past, we’ve requested pay stubs for the previous three months, and often times that paperwork is not available. Now, with the adjustment to just one month verification, we hope that the program will be more accessible to those in the most need.”

According to Kilpatrick-Goodwill, the process will be the same, only with less stress for the applicants and also for those processing the applications.

New 2015 Income Eligibility Chart for Utility Discount Program Available

The new year is just around the corner, and so are the 2015 income eligibility requirements for the City of Seattle Utility Discount Program.

The discount program is one of the most generous in the country. To be eligibile, a household cannot earn more than 70 percent of the state area median income. Participants get a 60 percent discount on their electricity and a 50 percent discount on water/sewer/garbage bills. That’s an average annual savings of over $800 on combined utilities.

Click here to download a prgram flyer with the new eligibility requirements and pass it on to those you know who could benefit from cutting their utility costs in half.