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Getting AC to residents of public housing, where extreme heat can be dangerous

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The month of July has broken records with extremely high temperatures all across the U.S. And as heat waves get worse, air conditioning feels like a must have. But for people who live in public housing, many who are older and chronically ill, that's just not always possible, You see, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, there's no federal mandate that these buildings have AC.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: When deadly heat hit the Pacific Northwest two years ago, some who died were residents of public housing in Portland. That's where Beth Vansmith lives. She has heart disease and remembers how awful she felt with no air conditioner in temperatures up to 116.

BETH VANSMITH: I mean, I would get dizzy. I would get nauseous, you know. And I'd lose my appetite completely. And it was just so miserably hot.

LUDDEN: She borrowed a portable AC from her sister, a huge relief, even though she says it was itty-bitty.

VANSMITH: I was sitting like this most of the time next to it because it really only cooled, like, right here.

LUDDEN: Most public housing is decades old, often built before central air, and it'd be incredibly expensive to add that now. Many tenants get an allowance for utilities like heat, but it does not cover AC. Deborah Thrope of the National Housing Law Project says when people do get their own air conditioner, they mostly pay for it themselves.

DEBORAH THROPE: That's when we start seeing families paying well above 30% of their income in rent, which makes these programs less affordable.

LUDDEN: Texas State Representative Diego Bernal remembers the moment he learned this. A few years ago, someone who lived in public housing in San Antonio told him how brutal the heat was with no AC. He assumed hers was broken and said, I'll get it fixed. But no - 2,000 public housing residents there had no air conditioner and could not afford to get one.

DIEGO BERNAL: And it blew my mind. And I was embarrassed because not only do I know my city, not only do I represent the area, but it also is across the street from my middle school. I mean, I knew all kinds of kids who came from there.

LUDDEN: Bernal, a Democrat, set out to change it. The city of San Antonio helped put up money to get AC units for all public housing residents. Then, for the past two years, Bernal proposed bills to mandate or at least encourage this across Texas, but they failed. Affordable housing providers pushed back hard, saying they had no money to make it happen.

BERNAL: I get that. I do. I also don't care. It is unsafe and inhumane to expect people to live without air conditioning. So figure it out.

LUDDEN: The Department of Housing and Urban Development declined an interview but says it is exploring options for a cooling requirement. It also recently clarified that local housing agencies can spend federal money for air conditioning, though only for common areas, not individual apartments. Meanwhile, a lot of local housing agencies are cash strapped and say they can't fund individual ACs. Take New York City. When COVID hit, the mayor used pandemic aid to give free ACs to 16,000 public housing residents. Now, the housing agency says starting in October, those tenants must pay $8 a month or give back their AC.

VERA NASEVA: I told them then they can take it, so...

LUDDEN: Manhattan resident Vera Naseva is 73 and says even that little extra would force her to cut back on food. Plus, the unit is noisy and doesn't fit well in her window.

NASEVA: It's leaking, and it's - the floor gets wet. It's not really good.

LUDDEN: Others with AC units don't always like them, either. Portland studied indoor heat in public housing last summer. Tenants complained AC units were too noisy, too bulky. Or people like Chris Harris just preferred to do without.

CHRIS HARRIS: I've got the fan. And like I say, those drapes, they were a godsend. And the only time I see sunlight in my apartment is when one of the cats gets in the window sill.

LUDDEN: Researcher Vivek Shandas of Portland State University says when people used things like that, it made a big difference.

VIVEK SHANDAS: Their units were remarkably cool throughout the day and night. And, in fact, those were the units that were consistently as cool as those that had the mechanical air conditioning systems.

LUDDEN: Still, some apartments reached 90 degrees or more. And when researchers sent phone alerts to warn people, some found that annoying and turned it off. Ian Davie is with Home Forward, which manages the apartments in Portland. He says the study makes clear they need to educate residents about heat safety.

IAN DAVIE: Tips for staying cool, how to identify heat-related illnesses, and then, in a more acute context, what to do if someone is feeling ill, including calling 911.

LUDDEN: Despite a tight budget, last year, Davie did also allocate a million dollars for air conditioners, and he's getting more through a city clean energy fund. In fact, he created a stockpile and a whole safety team. When the temperature spikes and requests for AC pour in, he says he'll be ready. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
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