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Taking the chill off

Weatherization program helps households receiving fuel assistance save more

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By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / December 25, 2010

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When Marie Salamone moved into her Brookline home, the winter wind ruffled the curtains, seeping through drafty windows and chilling the apartment. On went the sweaters. Up went the thermostat. And out the door went $300 a month to pay the heating oil bill.

It was more than Salamone, an out-of-work medical assistant, could handle while trying to raise her grandson on about $250 a week in unemployment benefits. But several months after qualifying for federal heating assistance last year, she received more help to keep her family warm through a second government program that replaced her home’s old furnace and installed 18 new windows.

Salamone is among thousands of low-income Massachusetts residents who have received help cutting heating costs and stretching tight budgets through a federal home weatherization program that targets households receiving fuel assistance. Since the contractors finished at Salamone’s apartment late last winter, the rooms are warmer and the thermostat is lower, and Salamone expects significant savings when her next oil bill arrives.

“This certainly does help,’’ said Salamone, 54, marveling at the cozy house following the first snowfall in her neighborhood. “It’s tight as a button. It’s so hot in here sometimes.’’

At a time when funding for fuel assistance is down, the federal weatherization program is reaching more needy people this winter because of $5 billion in federal stimulus money authorized last year, including $122 million allocated to Massachusetts to be used by March 2012. Normally, the state gets about $6.5 million a year, enough to weatherize about 2,500 homes. But due to stimulus money, the state has tripled that pace, weatherizing about 7,500 homes over the past year.

“We’re incredibly busy right now, more so than I’ve ever seen in 35 years,’’ said Ken Rauseo, manager of the energy conservation unit at the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the program locally. “We’ve never had this much money before.’’

For many families, the expansion of the weatherization program couldn’t come at a better time. Energy prices are rising rapidly as forecasters predict a colder winter than last year in the Northeast. Meanwhile, less money is available for fuel assistance: Congress recently approved nearly $4 billion for the program under a temporary spending bill, down from a $5.1 billion allotment last year.

Advocates hope the weatherization program can pick up some of the slack. But even with increased money, it’s still not enough, Rauseo said. Last year, 206,000 Massachusetts households qualified for fuel assistance, about 12 times the 17,000 homes the state estimates it can weatherize with its stimulus award.

Meanwhile, applications for heating assistance are already outpacing last year’s requests. Across the state, requests for aid are expected to swell to 270,000, up from 250,000 last winter, and 180,000 three years ago, according to Action for Boston Community Development Inc., one of the largest agencies in the state that distributes fuel assistance. The group, which serves Boston, Brookline, and Newton, has experienced a 10 percent increase in applications this year.

This growing need makes the weatherization program more important than ever, said John Wells, who oversees weatherization services at Action for Boston Community Development. The improvements, Wells said, typically save families up to 30 percent on their annual heating bills. “Some of these clients who are spending $2,200 today, when we walk away could be spending $1,500,’’ Wells said. “It takes a big piece of the uncertainty out of the clients’ lives.’’

Recently, a crew from A&M General Contracting in Peabody, worked to add insulation to the walls of Yahaira Lopez’s second floor apartment in Dorchester. The mother of 14-month-old twins hopped from foot to foot in the cold, smiling while watching the contractors.

Even at the best of times, Lopez, who earns less than $30,000 a year as a teacher’s aide, juggles her finances to pay for rent and other necessities. So when winter and the nearly $300 a month heating bill comes, something has to give.

“I don’t pay the gas bill in full, I usually try to pay half of it,’’ said Lopez. “It’s rent, electricity, gas, plus car insurance. That’s pretty much where all my money goes.’’

But once the workers from A&M are done blowing insulation into the walls and adding weatherstripping to her drafty windows, Lopez said she expects her heating expenses to drop significantly. And that means the $435 she is getting in fuel assistance this winter will go a lot further. “It definitely decreases my bill,’’ she said of the aid, “and this will help it like 10 times more.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.