A worker adds insulation to a Ramsey County home that received weatherization benefits after applying for emergency assistance. Weatherization helps lower bills and emissions. Credit: Photo courtesy of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties.

Unemployment levels remain high due to the coronavirus pandemic, and temperatures have plunged below zero from a February polar vortex blast. But state officials say they have received fewer requests than normal for a program to help low-income families cover heating bills. 

The pandemic also is disrupting typical outreach efforts into communities of color, where the need is often the greatest. Others who could benefit from the program are not eligible because they are undocumented.

“We are concerned that more Minnesotans are having problems with their heating bills because of the pandemic,” said Michael Schmitz, director of Minnesota’s office of emergency assistance program. 

But so far that hasn’t played out in demand for usage of the state’s energy assistance program, which helps low-income residents pay heating bills and makes them eligible for furnace repair and weatherization rehabilitation. The program has received 10 percent fewer applications than it did at this time in 2020. 

The state estimates that in a normal year, only about 25 percent of eligible households apply for energy assistance or weatherization programs. About 118,000 Minnesotans received assistance averaging $500 in 2020, though the state believes there are closer to 500,000 households eligible for benefits. 

For some immigrant families, the program isn’t available at all. A social security number is required for energy assistance applicants, leaving undocumented residents out in the cold. In south Minneapolis, Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action ( or COPAL in Spanish) has a navigation hotline that has been constantly ringing this winter with families seeking help covering their rent and utilities. But most are unable to access programs funded by the federal government, and need to be connected to locally administered services, according to program coordinator Cecilia Calabria.

Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for the program, but local agencies can register the household if at least one resident has a social security number. That individual–often a child or family member–often connects families to immigration lawyers for assistance.

“The majority of people don’t qualify,” Calabria said. 

Spreading the word

Typically, the state tells people about its energy assistance program through community events, or a potential applicant might be referred to the program from a social worker at a school or local clinic. But with the pandemic keeping people away from those settings, the word hasn’t spread like it normally would, Schmitz said. 

This year, Minnesota received $106 million in federal funds to help low-income residents cover heating bills. Eligible households can apply for the program until May 31 through local service providers. With fewer applications coming in, the state is preparing to send letters to all addresses previously registered with the program. 

Minnesota’s energy assistance and weatherization programs are run by local agencies like Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington counties. About 19,000 households in the east metro counties were approved for energy assistance in 2020, according to program director Kevin Adams, and 71 percent of those clients were Black, Indigenous or other people of color. 

The agency has translators for applicants in Hmong, Spanish and Somali, and has other bilingual staff members to assist with further language needs, Adams said. The agency also has Karen and Somali workers who do cultural training with crews going out to work on homes in those communities. With pandemic conditions preventing typical outreach, the group has run ads in newspapers and on culturally specific radio programming on KFIA to try to reach immigrant populations. 

“We’re continuing to reach out,” Adams said. 

Applications also have slowed in Ramsey and Washington counties, Adams said, down about 7,000 from this time last year. He suspects that COVID-19-inspired restrictions against shutting off utilities and a milder early winter may be reasons why fewer households have applied. But with temperatures plunging, the pace is picking up. 

Many immigrant households that contact COPAL are unaware of the energy assistance program, Calabria said. In February, she was happy to see the state had a detailed application and qualifications in Spanish, but still thinks more could be done to spread the news within the community.  

“I think we need more outreach in Spanish,” Calabria said. 

While large utilities like Xcel Energy have committed to not shutting off services for delinquent bills during the pandemic, COPAL is hearing from people across the state who have been cut off, Calabria said. Minnesota’s Cold Weather Protection Rule prohibits providers from shutting off utilities in the winter, but only if customers call and work out a monthly payment plan. Calling can be intimidating for people with language barriers, so COPAL often helps people make arrangements. 

At COPAL, navigators try to help connect undocumented residents to assistance they are qualified for, like energy audits through the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE) and local living expense relief programs through counties. Every six months, the organization holds Facebook Live events with CEE and nonprofit Citizens Utility Board in English and Spanish so people can get tips on energy efficiency and lowering their bills. Their Spanish event is February 17

Driven by inequity 

Often the people with the highest energy bills are the least able to pay. Fuel poverty, which is defined as a household’s utility bill exceeding 10 percent of monthly income, is driven by historic housing inequity and is an example of how being poor is expensive, according to Tony G. Reames, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability who focuses on energy justice. Less affluent people and many new Americans often live in older, less energy efficient housing with older, less efficient appliances. That makes it more expensive to keep homes warm in the winter and results in higher levels of pollution. 

“You have this trifecta of poor housing quality, insufficient infrastructure, and higher costs,” Reames said. 

In studies analyzing two major Midwestern cities, Detroit and Kansas City, Reames found that neighborhoods with high populations of racial and ethnic minorities had more intense use of heating energy. Maps of neighborhoods with high heating energy use often overlap with maps on redlining and housing segregation, he said. 

Connection to climate crisis 

Minnesota is not on track to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets set by the Next Generation Energy Act, which seeks to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050. Residential emissions have risen 32 percent since 2005 and are the state’s fifth-leading source of greenhouse gases, according to a 2021 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.  

A combination of extreme cold and heat in 2018 that had people using their heat and air conditioning is believed to be the main cause of the spike in residential emissions, according to the MPCA. 

Global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels means the earth is rapidly heating, with 2020 being the second-warmest year on record. But scientists believe warm air in the Arctic is weakening the polar jet stream, making it more likely to push south into the United States, which can cause extreme cold spells like the current one. 

Chance for improvement

Existing energy assistance and weatherization programs are effective, Reames said. When someone gets their home weatherized, bills and pollution drop and comfort rises; checks from the energy assistance program help families cover high bills. But these programs are essentially done on a first come, first served basis and are inconsistently advertised. A more effective approach, Reames believes, would be to target specific neighborhoods with aging housing stock and do large-scale weatherized retrofits that lower prices and pollution. “That would go a huge way to reducing carbon emissions here in the United States,” Reames said. 

In Ramsey and Washington counties, Community Action Partnership is starting to take such an approach. The pandemic has made it more difficult to get into single-family homes, so this year the organization has been taking on weatherization at multifamily buildings, Adams said, where improvements to 20-30 units can lower costs and emissions in short order. The agency recently has begun mapping locations from which it frequently receives applications and overlaying Census data on income, age and demographics. In the coming weeks, it plans to launch a door hanger campaign about the program in neighborhoods with high concentrations of past due bills. 

In the wake of the Great Recession, the Recovery Act stimulus package of 2009 injected massive funding into the national weatherization program and other initiatives to modernize appliances to save money and reduce emissions. The Biden Administration has a similar opportunity with the COVID-19 stimulus bill working its way through Congress, Reames said, and the administration has pledged to ensure 40 percent of environmental investments go toward marginalized communities

Update: This story has been updated to reflect additional ways in which undocumented people can access energy assistance.

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...