Low-Income Heating Oil Program for New Yorkers Continues After Death of Backer Hugo Chavez

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A program that provides home heating oil for low-income New Yorkers is safe for now despite the death of one of its chief backers — former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Around 153,000 U.S. households a year get free heating oil from Houston, Texas-based Citgo, which is a subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company. 75,000 of those are in New York City.

The program started in the Bronx in 2005 and has since expanded to 25 U.S. states under the supervision of former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II and his non-profit Citizens Energy Corporation.

According to a Kennedy spokesman, remaining deliveries for winter 2013 will continue to ship on schedule through the middle of March, but what happens in 2014 is anyone's guess.

"First Venezuela has to mourn the loss of its president. Then they will have an election, and we will see what the new administration in Venezuela wants to do with the program," New York Congressman José Serrano said in an interview.

Serrano was instrumental in bringing Chavez to the Bronx in September 2005. He was criticized Tuesday for eulogizing the man many call a "dictator," in a press release on his Congressional website and in a Twitter message that ended "R.I.P. Mr. President." 

(The tweet was re-tweeted 580 times as of Wednesday evening, but as we all know, RTs ≠ endorsements.)

Serrano said that Chavez's support of the home heating oil initiative — a $435 million investment over eight years — shows he had a sensitivity for the poor. 

"Many members of Congress had asked different oil companies to step forward and participate in some program to help the needy, and the only one that answered was Citgo," Serrano said.

In Serrano's district in the Bronx, residents of 600 affordable housing units run by the Mount Hope Housing Company have received checks each year to offset their heating oil bills thanks to the program. 

"Having access to the $300 or $400 in the middle of the winter or the spring can translate to at least two trips to the supermarket, can translate to schoolbooks, uniforms," said Fritz Jean, CEO of the Mount Hope Housing Company.

According to Jean, the average household income in the South Bronx where the non-profit's 33 buildings are located is about $29,000 a year for a family of four. The New York City median is more than $20,000 higher.