Originally published 3/30/2023
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

A temporary emergency program that helped low-income households keep their water services running and pay overdue bills is coming back to Pennsylvania.

Reallocated federal funds will allow the state to resume the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced earlier this month. The program, which provides families up to $5,000 in grants to cover water and sewage costs, ended last October after funding was exhausted.

DHS is waiting on a final report from the federal government that will dictate how much extra funding the state will receive and how the program will operate for the second availability.

“Access to clean drinking water and wastewater services is fundamental to our health and well-being, and we hope to work with local and private water services providers to further expand this program and ensure that this assistance is reaching the communities it is intended to help,” said Secretary Val Arkoosh in a statement.

Through the program, individuals who met the income requirements could receive one crisis grant for their drinking water service and one crisis grant for their wastewater service, up to $2,500 each.

In 2022, Pennsylvania distributed approximately $43.2 million and received more than 129,000 applications.

Assistance for vulnerable households has become critical as the cost of water services skyrockets. A recent analysis shows that water rates jumped roughly 43% from 2012 to 2021, outpacing rates for other utilities.

Angie Elnyczky-Collins, programs and outreach manager for North Hills Community Outreach, has seen this surge firsthand when working with her clients across northern Allegheny County communities.

When Ms. Elnyczky-Collins first started working with the organization in 2020, she considered a high water bill to be about $300. Now, she finds a high water bill doubles or triples that.

LIHWAP quickly became a lifeline for families in crisis, she said. Since 2021, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewage Authority has distributed more than $1.6 million dollars through LIHWAP, benefitting 1,480 households.

Ms. Elnyczky-Collins said the situations can be desperate, remembering one family who faced the possibility of losing their home over lienable water and sewage bills.

“Just seeing that relief has been huge,” she said. “It’s a lifesaver.”

She said more landlords are putting residents on the hook for utilities, and bills are often in the landlord’s name, making it more challenging for nonprofits to help.

When it comes to public assistance like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Dollar Energy Fund, they tend to focus on utilities such as heating and lighting. But for water and sewage specifically, LIHWAP was a rare resource, she said.

While a few water companies participate in the Dollar Energy Fund, she said her clients are only able to get a couple hundred dollars in a one-time grant for the year.

One of the other few options available for sewage bill help is the Alcosan grant, but it only shaves about $160 off over the course of a year, she said.

“When people have four, five, six, seven hundred dollar bills, that’s still barely scratching the surface,” she said. “A program like LIHWAP was able to reset people to zero.”

Richard Morris, director of housing at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, is hopeful that LIHWAP will return sooner rather than later as Pennsylvania’s annual winter termination moratorium comes to an end.

This seasonal termination moratorium, which runs from Dec. 1 to March 31, helps safeguard income-qualified households in Pennsylvania from having their electric, natural gas or heat-related water service turned off for non-payment.

Mr. Morris has seen how lack of water significantly diminishes quality of life, seeing people rely on hauling water from buffaloes or needing to use eight to 10 bottles to cook and clean on a daily basis. One of the complicated cases the group is working on involves a family struggling with a $4,000 balance on their water and sewage bill alone.

LIHWAP could help keep these families afloat, he said.

“We’re on the cusp as to when things could get worse in terms of utilities,” Mr. Morris said. “When the no shut-off period ends, it can really be difficult for people. We want to make sure that this money is distributed as quickly as possible.”