Michigan gets $384M in federal aid to help with home heating costs this winter

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan has received $384.7 million in federal heating aid for low-income households for the winter season — more than double what the state would typically be allocated in a non-pandemic year, the White House said Friday. 

That includes $238.2 million the state received last spring in supplemental funds from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan and $146.5 million it received in November as part of the state's annual allocation for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), according to the White House. 

Gene Sperling, who leads the oversight for distributing funds from President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, as White House press secretary Jen Psaki watches at left.

The aid comes amid soaring energy prices in recent months, including higher costs for gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, electricity and coal, as demand rebounded from the pandemic.

In Michigan, LIHEAP is administered by the state Department of Health and Human Services. For the previous year, the state had received $146 million in federal LIHEAP funds.

"MDHHS is committed to helping families heat their homes through a variety of innovative programs with the help of our federal partners, and we are pleased by this support from the Biden administration," spokesman Bob Wheaton said.

"No Michigan family should have to worry about keeping their home warm – especially during a pandemic."

The boost in federal funding to the state came from last year's relief bill that included an additional $4.5 billion for the program nationally, for a total $8 billion appropriated in 2021 for LIHEAP. White House officials said it was the largest spending in a single year for the program, which dates to 1981.

In Michigan, the program helps cover past-due household energy bills for qualifying low-income families, provides home heating credits to low-income residents, as well as weatherization services or repairs. It also funds the "Heat and Eat" program that increases food assistance benefits for some renters, Wheaton said.

"As we have come to the the winter of '21 and 2022 ... we are much better prepared as a country to help people families who, without this help, may have felt that much more pressed, and that much more of a struggle to meet their winter home heating costs," said Gene Sperling, who oversees coronavirus relief distribution for the White House.

"It's the largest amount for LIHEAP that our country's ever had, and it could not have come at a better time."  

Lawmakers on a call with reporters Friday noted that in the past demand for the program has always eclipsed what funding was available. 

"One of the problems, as these funds get low for people who are still using oil to heat their homes, is we can't do a partial delivery, and so we're really does become a crisis," said U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Massachusetts.

"So, having this additional funding upfront that people and especially the agencies that help implement the LIHEAP funding, this will make a huge difference and we'll make a much smoother way to deliver this assistance to families in need."

The White House said it met in November with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other state and federal officials to discuss deploying home energy and emergency rental assistance resources. Sperling on Friday called Michigan's proposal one of the more "innovative" among the states.

That's in part because once a Michigan household applies for emergency rental assistance utility benefits, the utility company places a hold on utility shut off, according to the White House. The state also has piloted a program working with major utilities to identify eligible customers with past due arrearages and pay those energy accounts using LIHEAP funds without customers needing to take action.

The Biden administration last year said it also sent out nationwide an estimated $25 to $30 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance, which can be used by renters to pay back arrears and for past-due utility bills or help for avoid utility shut-offs.