In a cramped office in Oregon, Wisconsin, there is a small staff hard at work doing a really big job—helping people in rural areas keep a roof over their heads and the lights on. It’s a challenge those at the Foundation for Rural Housing expect will be exponentially more challenging in the coming months, due to the economic impact of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Started in 1970 by then-Director of Wisconsin Electric Cooperative (WEC, now known as Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association) Bill Thomas, the organization’s mission was all about support for rural residents, and it still is.
Foundation for Rural Housing Executive Director Jennifer Fasula says the office fields calls from people seeking guidance and assistance for a wide range of issues, including problems paying the rent or mortgage, coming up with a security deposit, or paying the utility bill, which is typically the most pressing issue in the spring. But this is no ordinary spring.
Even without the economic hit of the pandemic, springtime is a challenging time for those who fall behind on utility bills. The federal Energy Assistance program, which pays up to $600 toward utility bills based on need, is typically out of funds by March. This year, the lack of payments is compounded by the cost of the pandemic. Social isolation means lost wages for many members in both urban and rural areas.
Federal and state government relief packages will offer some assistance, and Community Action Programs such as the Foundation for Rural Housing will be on the front lines, ready to help those most impacted by the economic hit. Foundation for Rural Housing works to help people in various ways including one-time assistance of $400 toward their bill, something more people may be seeking this year.
As of mid-March, Executive Director Jennifer Fasula said they were already getting inquiries from people experiencing hardships due to the pandemic. And for those who haven’t paid their bill since November or December, the delay in disconnects may just make the situation even more difficult.
“Our up to $400 payment isn’t going to help them avoid a disconnect if they owe thousands of dollars,” Fasula said. “This is why we need to do more to help them avoid landing in this spot in the first place.”
Even before the pandemic hit, Fasula and Emily Schroer, who works as a housing coordinator in the office, were looking to do a pilot program with an electric co-op that merges assistance with education, to help people break the habit of putting off that utility bill in the winter months.
“Our key mission is to prevent homelessness in rural areas, and a delinquent utility bill can lead to eviction for renters, and disconnection for homeowners,” Fasula said, adding that they do prioritize customers of smaller utilities, such as co-ops.
While this small office operates on a small budget, funded largely by state General Purpose Revenue under homelessness prevention, the goals of those passionate people who work here are big. Fasula hopes the pilot program she is pitching will serve as another tool they use to help people help themselves get out of poverty and into a more financially stable situation. Her idea is to tie budgeting education to an incentive, such as assistance with rent or utility bill payment.
“We’re just going to test it and see. If we do budgeting classes and you follow through, from start to finish—you do the whole curriculum with us—can we impact your life somehow? And there’s a payoff for the effort. If you start a savings account, if you stay current on your utility bill, then you get a payment toward your rent,” Fasula explained.
Fasula believes this approach, in partnership with electric cooperatives, would be a win-win. “They’ve got the people, they’ve got the sites, we’ll do the program,” she said. “And if we do it right, we will have more people with the incentive and desire to stay on track and stay in their homes.”
This is a good first step, she says, to helping people in rural areas, so they can then address other challenges including transportation, childcare, and education and training to get better employment opportunities.
The office also just recently started a pilot project for broadband assistance, which is crucial, particularly with schools and businesses closed.
“We’re finding that, in some areas, even if they have access to high-speed internet, they can’t afford it, and it’s all about the kiddos,” she said, noting that the pandemic is shining a bright light on the need to make sure rural areas are connected. “That’s an added challenge that could be a barrier to their education and therefore, their success in the future.”
Part of her job is to maintain partnerships with electric co-ops, and to seek additional funding. These efforts enable the foundation to do more to help people maintain housing in rural areas, especially in times of crisis.
“For us, we just want to make sure we are working together with the co-ops and that members know that we are here,” she said. “We want to make sure members are aware that there are service organizations that share in their mission—to help strengthen rural communities all across the state.”