Helping those in need with heating costs on the rise


Habitat for Humanity is offering weatherization assistance for low-income homeowners

by: PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY - Habitat for Humanity depends on the assistance of volunteers to help low-income families get into affordable homes or upgrade and winterize homes they already own.

A cold, north wind blows the remaining leaves from the tree in the front yard, ushering in the first bite of winter weather.

Outside, the temperature is falling. Inside, it’s time to turn up the thermostat.

As the furnace roars to life, the unmistaken scent of last summer’s heated dust is an unwelcome reminder that coziness has a cost — one that will likely be more than last year.

“We are in an environment of low, but slowly rising gas prices,” said Oregon Public Utilities Commission Chairman Susan Ackerman, seeking to explain why most natural gas rates in Oregon would increase beginning Nov. 1. Locally, customers of Cascade Natural Gas are expected to see an increase in their monthly bills of slightly more than 12 percent.

It’s not just natural gas that’s going to cost more.

“EIA expects higher prices this winter for homes that heat with natural gas, propane, and electricity,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Short-term Energy and Winter Fuels Outlook.

Absent from the list is heating oil, which EIA projects to be slightly lower in cost than last year. Even so, filling a 200-gallon tank at $4 a gallon constitutes a major purchase.

And who’d have thought juniper firewood — in Central Oregon — would go for $200 a cord?

Clearly, homeowners need to do whatever they can to save on their heating bills this winter. Adding weather seals to an exterior door is an easy fix. So too, is adding insulation to the attic, but that can be a costly proposition. Replacing 1950s-era windows probably requires a professional.

However, if you’re a low-income homeowner in Crook County, the Bend Area Habitat for Humanity just might have the answer to your winter woes, and can even give you a hand to make your home a better, safer place to live, according to Family Services Manager DeeDee Johnson.

“Our goal is to reach those who have a tough time affording home repair, especially when it’s around the safety and health of their home and their lives,” said Johnson.

Along with weatherization and insulation, services include roof repair, window replacement, accessibility modifications (ramps and grab bars), and even the remodeling of a bathroom or kitchen if the current design limits a disabled homeowner.

“It’s a full range of services,” Johnson added. “A lot of times it’s leaky windows causing their energy bills to be too high. It might just be safety. We actually did a veteran’s bathroom so they had a tall tub — it was more of a walk-in tub. We took out the carpets in the home because they had a hard time walking. (Installing) laminate flooring made it accessible throughout the house.”

The program provides an interest-free loan to the homeowner, to pay for all materials. The labor is donated by qualified volunteers.

“I think (that) is appealing to a lot of our community, especially the elderly community. They’re afraid that they’re going to be over-priced, or over-bid, or be told that they need something that they might not immediately need. Because we don’t charge for labor, and we use our staff and volunteers, they feel a little bit more comfortable. ‘Well, at least I’m not getting gouged for anything.’ Not that our contractors do that, but I think there’s a fear in that community, that age group.”

To be considered for the program, applicants must first have a gross household income level of from 35 to 60 percent of Crook County’s median — currently $13,685 to $44,220. The number of people in the household also factors in. For example, the gross annual income for a family of four must fall between $19,530 and $33,480, whereas the range for a family of two is $13,685 to $23,460.

Applicants must also meet other criteria.

“In order to qualify, they have to own (or be purchasing) their land (and home),” said Johnson. “If not, I refer to a couple of the other programs in the area that might be able to help them, although they’re a little longer wait list. They need to be current on their mortgage payments, and their property taxes and homeowner’s insurance.”

They also have to be able to pay back the loan in a reasonable time frame with a monthly payment that’s determined after a free estimate, the preparation of a work proposal, and negotiation with the homeowner.

“We will never make it more than 10 percent of their monthly income,” she explained. “We (also) work with folks on a fixed income, which is why we look to see that they at least meet a minimum income guideline of 35 percent of the area’s median income. We don’t want them to be overextended.”

Johnson explained that income must come from “permanent” sources, such as regular working wages, social security, and permanent disability. Income from temporary sources doesn’t qualify.

“The fixed incomes can work. If someone has child support, or unemployment, or temporary disability, we have them wait until they have more regular wages so we can be sure that they’re able to pay back the loan.”

Finally, selected homeowners must be able to volunteer 10-15 hours of their own time, either at a Habitat construction site, or at the Habitat ReStore. Accommodation is made for those unable to do so.

Johnson said that Habitat is pretty open to receive applications right now, and that it usually takes only a couple of weeks to get a project and repayment plan ironed out before the actual work can commence.

“I encourage people to call, and then I will either mail them the application, or do the preliminary application with them over the phone. Then our construction manager will come and make an appointment with them to review the project, talk about the scope of work, and what is a priority for them. Then I start talking with them more about the financial application. What are their monthly payments, currently? Do they have debt that might make it unmanageable for them to take on a new loan? We start having that conversation.”