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The Farmer’s Almanac isn’t the only source predicting an exceptionally cold winter for the Northeast. The Department of Energy recently predicted a 30 percent increase in heating costs due to rising oil prices, spelling out a season of lowered thermostats and penny pinching for even the most fiscally secure New Yorkers. But no group will feel the chill more than the city’s 1.6 million residents living below the poverty line.

Although most tenants do not pay separate heating bills, housing advocates fear that local landlords will cut back on maintenance or seek rent increases as they scramble for ways to combat the rising prices.

“Rising costs usually translate to rising rents,” said Michael McKee, associate director of Tenants & Neighbors, an advocacy group. “I would bet that the fuel costs of this year will have a direct impact on what the Rent Guidelines Board votes to do this year.”

Jack Freund, executive vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), a landlord group, hopes he’s right. Many landlords, he said, would like the Rent Guidelines Board to reinstate a fuel surcharge for rent-controlled apartments like the one in place during the oil crisis of the early 1980s. “A lot of the smaller owners are very concerned about how they are going to pay,” he said.

Landlords running nonprofit housing are in an even more precarious position because they operate on tighter budgets, said David Hunter, director of the Housing Development Committee for The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which represents 84 affordable housing developers in the city. “Those who own and operate affordable properties are the least able to respond to price increases,” he said.

Two of Hunter’s clients reported that their fuel costs through October had already exceeded the total amount for last year’s entire heating season. And there is little these landlords can do, other than clean their fuel burners and inspect for leaks.

For households paying their own heating costs, there’s even more of a danger, said David Fox, executive director for Campaign for Home Energy Assistance in Washington D.C. “Many skip meals and medication or avoid going to the doctor or dentist,” said Fox. “Some turn the thermostat so low that they are at risk of hypothermia.”

A 2005 study conducted by the independent research group Fisher, Sheehan & Colton found households living 50 percent below the poverty line in New York state spend more than half of their household income on heating expenses.

Many turn to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal program, for help. LIHEAP gives states annual grants to provide energy assistance to low-income households earning up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $41,000 for a family of four.

Last year New York City, which administers the program, presented 431,800 assistance grants for a total of $27 million. Roughly 2 percent went to low-income homeowners, with the rest going to tenants. But that still doesn’t meet the need, said Jane Corbett, executive deputy commissioner of the Office of Policy and Program Development at the Human Resources Administration. “More HEAP funding is needed from a national level,” Corbett said.

If a LIHEAP grant isn’t enough, Corbett refers households to programs like EnergyShare, run by HeartShare, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit. EnergyShare is funded by three major energy companies–Con-Edison, Keyspan and Entergy–which match their employees’ donations. EnergyShare raises about $75,000 every season and gives away no more than $200 at a time, until the fund is depleted.

“It used to take us six weeks to deplete grants, but last year started the increase in fuel prices and we were done in four weeks,” said Joe Guarinello, who runs EnergyShare. “I’m expecting to be done in two weeks this year.”

Meanwhile, David Fox, and other advocates, are lobbying Congress to increase LIHEAP funding from $2 billion to $3 billion this year. He points out that $3 billion is still just over half the amount authorized when the program was renewed in August.

“This is literally a life or death issue,” he said. “LIHEAP is a program that saves lives.”

–Bryan Farrell

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