City helps seniors keep the heat on, and at a discount

Karen Kinsel struggled to stay warm last winter. The 66-year-old Dorchester woman made do with electric space heaters when she couldn’t afford to replace her outdated furnace. It got even harder financially when the pandemic hit and she was laid off in June from her job as a secretary at a bio-tech firm.

A repairman who visited her home last fall to appraise the cost of a new furnace estimated it would run between $8,000 and $10,000.

“You know, they tell you to have a savings reserves, and I did,” said Kinsel. “But it kind of got used up in that time and I couldn’t have afforded to fix that stuff by myself.” 

The repairman pointed her to the Senior Saves program run by the city of Boston. She applied for a grant in November and was quickly approved for $8,000 for a new furnace.

“They moved it through really quickly,” she said. “They brought two different guys who looked at everything ,and the whole process took about a day-and-a-half. Everyone was as nice and polite as can be; they cleaned up after themselves really well. My basement is spotless. I have nothing bad to say. They did a wonderful job.” 

After the $8,000 grant was applied to the installation, Kinsel picked up the balance, which came out to just about $400.

She is one of 64 seniors citywide— including more than 20 in Dorchester and Mattapan— who have taken advantage of the program, which serves income-eligible seniors who need their heating systems replaced. 

Last November, Mayor Walsh re-launched the program, doubling the amount of funding available to Bostonians in an effort to better reflect the costs associated with replacing a faulty heating system. 

The Senior Saves program now has $8,000 in grant funding available to income-eligible seniors who are over the age of 60— up from the $3,500 that was previously made available. 

Kinsel learned that there are other ways the city helps cash-strapped seniors keep up their homes. When the team was finishing installing her new furnace, one of the managers noticed that her front steps were a little dilapidated. 

“She looked at me and said, ‘You know, we can help you fix your steps. There’s a program for that too,’” said Kinsel.

She has since applied for another grant through the Senior Home Repair program, which is managed by Dorchester’s Richard O’Brien, who told the Reporter: “That’s a natural evolution on these projects. We’ll come in with Senior Saves and identify other issues that could be fixed.

“It’s a little hard to do that program right now,” he said. “We still have challenges going into homes with seniors. The reason that Senior Saves was allowed to go forward was based on its emergency nature and the fact that we can socially distance, as furnaces are generally in basements, and keep everybody safe.” 

After coming to a “cold-stop” last spring, the repair program has ramped back up, focusing mainly on the emergency heat repairs and replacements.

In February alone, city officials responded to 30 emergency night and weekend calls from Bostonians who didn’t have heat. 

“We proposed to go forward with Senior Saves projects where we could separate the owner from the work and communicate by different means,” said O’Brien.

The program started with an initial budget of $500,000, which he said has been upped to $800,000. 

“There are an awful lot of folks out there with old heating systems that are limping along,” said O’Brien.  “We felt that if we properly incentivized this program with the grant, we might be able to see some more conversions so that they didn’t become emergencies in the winter, and we could ideally get them done in the summer months.

“There is money available, and we receive applicants from all over the city from multiple avenues— 311 calls, referrals, and through the nonprofit community organizations we partner with,” he said.

To qualify, applicants must be 60 or older, live in a one-to-four family property in the city. They must also have an income that does not exceed 80 percent of area median income, as determined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

Kinsel is looking forward to her next project. “They’re going to replace my steps that are falling down and crumbing. It was so nice because I’ve been desperately worried that the mailman was going to break his leg coming up the steps,” she said.

To learn more about Seniors Save and to apply for the program, residents can call 617-635-HOME.

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