Excessive warmth begs a query: Is air-con a proper?

June 22, 2022   |   by Noah Franklin

It is hot right now in much of the country. It was well over 100 degrees across much of the South and West over the weekend. Several cities — including Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver — set or tied temperature records. And that heat is forecast to move north and east over the next few days.

The climate crisis is making extreme heat and humidity more common, which is making air conditioning more of a necessity than it used to be in a lot of places. But, unlike with heating in the winter, very few cities and states have any kind of requirement that landlords provide a cool enough apartment or that utilities not turn peoples’ electricity off in the summer.

Every summer when it gets hot, the number of people calling the Texas Tenants’ Union goes way up.

“There will be people all summer long that go for days, weeks, sometimes months without air conditioning, because their landlord refuses to maintain it,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Dallas-based tenants’ rights organization.

Dallas is actually one of the few cities in the country that requires landlords to provide and maintain air conditioners or central air for tenants.

But there’s not always great enforcement. And even when there is, low-income tenants might have an air conditioner, “but they can’t afford the bill,” Rollins said — so they don’t turn it on.

“I would love to see more states and cities enact a renter’s right to air conditioning and, in tandem with that, pay a lot closer attention to the issue of utility affordability,” said Sam Whillans with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is really an expectation that is already built into the law around warming in the winter. And it’s really just as critical an issue in the summer around cooling.”

More people die of heat-related causes than any other kind of extreme weather. Yet there are many more laws and programs to help low-income people stay warm in the winter than cool in the summer.

“These rules were passed 20, 30, 40 years ago, so part of this is that the system we have to protect families — the public health systems — have not caught up with the current rise in temperatures,” said Mark Wolfe at the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

It’s time for cities and states to catch up, as climate change making extreme heat more common in more places, he said. “It’s going from being a regional concern to being a national concern.”

In most of the country, he added, air conditioning is a necessity now — not a luxury.

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