City program connects seniors with low-cost heat upgrades

Mayor Walsh with Anita and Glen McLaughlin at their home in Mattapan last November.

Every winter as temperatures plunge, the Mayor’s 311 hotline receives a barrage of heat emergency calls, many of them from senior citizens. This year, an initiative from the Department of Neighborhood Development called the Seniors Save Program is taking direct aim at that annual crisis by proactively replacing aging and faulty heating systems for qualifying seniors.

Richard O’Brien, associate director at the Boston Home Center, told the Reporter that the program was born this year as a response to a growing trend of extreme weather in recent winters.

“Over the last few years we seem to be having more of these weather events,” said O’Brien in alluding to instances like the first two weeks of January last year, a period when temperatures never exceeded 20 degrees.

“When this happens, the 311 system gets bogged down with calls,” said O’Brien, a Dorchester resident. “With this program, we’re trying to incent folks to take a look at the longevity of their current system, and get out ahead of it in the warmer months.”

Replacing faulty heat systems ahead of time is more cost effective than emergency fixes, said O’Brien, and that work ensures that seniors are prepared before that cold snap hits.

“No one wants to see seniors cold and suffering in their homes,” he said. “These newer systems are far more efficient, they’re going to cost less, and they’re going to have heating bills reduced and in many cases cut in half.”

A recent success story from the program saw a Mattapan couple, Anita and Glenn McLaughlin, receive a replacement boiler for their antiquated system, which was installed 140 years ago, in 1878. The McLaughlins were unaware the program existed until last month. Many Boston seniors are in a similar predicament, according to O’Brien.

While heating systems can often be expensive to install, the Seniors Save Program provides a new boiler or furnace at greatly reduced costs. Eligible residents receive a grant of $3,500 to go toward installation, and the rest is covered by a zero-percent-interest deferred loan that only has to be repaid if the residents sell their home or transfer their deed.

In short, seniors “will never have to take out their checkbook,” as O’Brien put it.

To qualify, applicants must be over 60 years of age, live in a single to four-family home, and earn 80 percent or less of the Area Median Income. Residents must also be up to date on their property tax payments and water and sewer bills.

The application process is designed to be senior friendly, consisting of only a one-page form. If approved, DND officials work alongside applicants to choose a fully-vetted contractor for the job.

“A lot of our programming is toward seniors, so we have a lot of experience working with folks that might have questions and need assistance,” said O’Brien. “We help them through the application, we send a construction specialist to look at the home and oversee the installation. It’s structured so that seniors should have no questions, no concerns. We’ll be there every step of the way.”

Of the 150 or so homes the program has assisted since its inception two years ago, O’Brien estimates that at least half have been in Dorchester, a neighborhood with many aging multi-family homes. And while heating sources vary, replacement options tend to be flexible.

“We will generally replace what the current system is in the home, but we also offer the opportunity to convert to a different heating source,” said O’Brien.
“We’ve made this program generous, to be honest, and we made the terms as favorable as we possibly can to incent people to do this work before it becomes a crisis,” O’Brien added. “We can still take in the regular work, the emergency work, but the more notice on this, the better.”

Interested citizens can print or download an application form for the Senior Saves Program on the City of Boston website or call the Boston Home Center at 617-635-4663.