The standard utility allowance (SUA) is a fixed dollar amount for a household's heating and utility expenses used in the calculation of shelter expenses for SNAP benefits. 106 C.M.R. §§ 364.400(G)(2), 364.945. The dollar value of the SUA applies statewide and is not tied to what you actually pay in monthly oil, gas, electricity or other utilities. It is an annualized amount to help simplify the calculations.
There are three different SUA amounts and the amounts are periodically adjusted by DTA with USDA approval:
- Heating (or air conditioning) SUA— currently $608, for households that incur heating or air conditioning costs separately from their rent. This includes public or subsidized housing tenants if your housing authority bills you for heat or for use of your air conditioner. You also get this SUA if you receive or anticipate receiving Fuel Assistance (also called Low Income Home Energy Assistance Act or LIHEAP payments) even if your heat is included with your rent. You also get this SUA if you have received the new Fuel Assistance benefit called H-EAT (Heating and Eating). See below. If you incur any heating costs in the winter or air conditioning costs in the summer or get any LIHEAP or H-EAT benefits, you get this SUA all year round, including months when you don't have to pay for heat or air conditioning.
- Non-heating SUA— currently $374, for households that incur utility expenses but not heating or air conditioning costs. Utility expenses can include electricity (non-heating), cooking gas, garbage collection, water and sewer fees passed onto tenants.
- Telephone-only SUA— currently $43, for households that incur only telephone costs (cell phone or landline, but not phone cards) and do not pay any of the other utilities listed above.
You do not have to prove your actual costs to get the SUA. You get the full SUA even if you live with another household and pay only part of the utilities. Except for Fuel Assistance payments, you cannot claim the SUA for utility costs paid by a third party. 106 C.M.R. § 364.410(B)(2).
The Heat and EAT (H-EAT) Program
In 2007, DTA and the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) established a program called H-EAT (Heating and Eating Fuel Assistance program). This program has helped thousands of SNAP households, mostly elder and disabled households, qualify for higher monthly SNAP benefits and access to fuel assistance. Many of these households have high shelter costs with heat included, incur cooling expenses separate from rent and/or qualify for regular Fuel Assistance. Many clients underreport this information to DTA because the questions are confusing. Unfortunately, as this book goes to print at the end of January 2014, Congress is on the verge of significant changes to the H-EAT option.
H-EAT currently works as follows: Twice a year (usually April and October) DTA scans the SNAP caseload and determines which households are eligible for the H-EAT benefit. They identify current SNAP recipients who are not already getting the higher heating/cooling SUA, not on Bay State CAP benefits, and not homeless. SNAP recipients who are found eligible are sent $1 of H-EAT benefits and information on regular Fuel Assistance, weatherization and other important benefits. Providing this H-EAT benefit has simplified the process of DTA determining utility costs and removed confusion for SNAP households.
Assuming the 2014 Farm Bill passes (changing the H-EAT option), there are some things you can do. First, states will still be able to continue with the H-EAT program if they fund a higher ($20) fuel assistance payment. States can also implement any changes at the next recertification, instead of right away. You can contact the Governor to urge him to fund additional Fuel Assistance and proceed slowly in implementation.
In addition, if you are a SNAP applicant or recipient, be sure DTA knows if you incur heating costs, AC costs during the summer (even if your heat is included) or you get regular Fuel Assistance benefits for either utilities or toward part of high rental costs. MLRI and the Food SNAP Coalition will work closely with the Governor and DTA to urge changes in SNAP policy to protect as many SNAP households as possible. Keep in contact with MLRI as this unfolds.
- If a shelter or other expense is paid for fully by someone outside the household, it cannot be claimed as a shelter deduction. 106 C.M.R. § 364.410(B)(1).
- If you have zero rental expenses (for example, you are caretaking a house or living rent free off-season) but you are responsible for heat or other utilities, you should get the standard utility deduction (SUA) even if zero rent. Contact an advocate if denied a SUA.
- Depending on the outcome of the 2013 Farm Bill reauthorization, as well as federal funding for Fuel Assistance and the H-EAT benefit, it is not clear how long SNAP households will qualify. Therefore, it is important to be sure DTA knows if you pay for any heating or cooling (air conditioning) costs separate from your rent or if you qualify for regular LiHEAA fuel assistance to pay for a portion of your rent when heat is included. This way, your benefits will not be impacted if there is a cut to H-EAT.
Additional Policy Guidance on SUA and H-EAT
- Guidance describing how DTA identified eligible SNAP households in Fall of 2013 for H-EAT benefit and SUA adjustment. Ops Memo 2013-53 (Oct. 17, 2013).
- H-EAT tracked separately from annual recertification periods and must be manually updated if household circumstances result in a change. DTA Transitions Hotline Q&A (December 2011).
- DTA guidance on creation of H-EAT program in 2007 with sample household notices, instructions on semi-annual caseload sweeps, caseload match with DHCD. DTA Field Operations Memo 2007-31 (June 28, 2007).
- Bay State CAP household eligible for heating/cooling SUA in calculating benefits. F.O. Memo 2012-44 (Sept. 24, 2012).
- A household that has a change of address or becomes homeless during the certification period is still eligible for the heating/cooling SUA if the household received H-EAT or regular Fuel Assistance. Transitions Hotline Q&A (June 2008).
- If household "reasonably anticipates" receipt of Fuel Assistance in upcoming year, household eligible for heating/cooling SUA. Transitions Hotline Q&A (Dec. 2004).
- Public and subsidized housing tenants charged seasonal electricity charges for AC are eligible for heating/cooling SUA for full certification period. Transitions Hotline Q&A (Dec. 2003).
- DTA should presume single-family residence homeowners have separate heating/cooling costs without additional verification; lease stating heat not included in rent is sufficient verification without fuel bills. Transitions Hotline Q&A (May 2003).
- Cost of a cell phone is allowed for the phone SUA. Transitions Hotline Q&A (Sept. 2010).
- Pre-paid phone calling card is not allowed for phone SUA because no regular due date or billing for service. Transitions Hotline Q&A (June 2003).
Produced by Patricia Baker, Victoria Negus, Laura Gallant, Deborah Harris and Rochelle Hahn, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Last updated January 2014