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As heat waves intensify, more public housing residents may get help with AC bills

Marvin Cox, community outreach director with the Metropolitan Action Commission on June 25, in Nashville. As temperatures reached into the upper 90s, the Metro Action Commission was offering free window AC units to seniors, families with young children and people with medical conditions.
Mark Humphrey
Marvin Cox, community outreach director with the Metropolitan Action Commission on June 25, in Nashville. As temperatures reached into the upper 90s, the Metro Action Commission was offering free window AC units to seniors, families with young children and people with medical conditions.

The summer has already been a scorcher and heat alerts across the country could lead to more records broken. Public housing residents, many elderly, children or sick, are disproportionately vulnerable to heat illness, yet there’s no federal mandate to provide them air conditioning.

In fact, until last month the Department of Housing and Urban Development allowed local housing agencies to subsidize tenants’ heating bills, but — with some exceptions — explicitly said they could not pay for cooling bills.

New guidance changes that, though critics say it still falls short.

“We must protect the health and safety of our families during increasingly severe weather events, like extreme heat, that can cause grave harm and even death to any member of our community,” said HUD Acting Secretary Adrianne Todman in a statement announcing the change last month.

Several public housing residents were among the hundreds who died when a heat wave struck the Pacific Northwest in 2021. Last year, Portland public housing resident Beth Vansmith told NPR she remembers how awful she felt at that time, with no air conditioner and temperatures soaring up to 116.

"I would get dizzy. I would get nauseous. You know, I'd lose my appetite completely, and it was just so miserably hot," she said.

Much public housing was built before central air was common, and at a time when it was not necessary in many parts of the country. Yet even as climate-fueled heat waves grow more intense and frequent, public housing residents who want an AC unit must buy it themselves. And some who do often hesitate to use it because of the added cost to their electric bill.

Now, local housing agencies will be allowed to subsidize cooling costs during a severe heat period. HUD has spelled out its own definition of that: two to three days of intense heat and humidity, with temperatures reaching at least 90 degrees. But local agencies can decide on their own definition of what will trigger cooling subsidies.

“We are providing maximum local control and decision-making for an issue that impacts more and more communities across the country each year,” said Richard Monocchio, with HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing.

Still, the change comes with other caveats that critics say could limit its impact.

Paying for cooling costs is not required, and tenants must ask for the help

“This is a very small step,” says Daniel Carpenter-Gold, a staff attorney with the Public Health Law Center in St. Paul, Minn. “It doesn't do anything if the resident doesn't have air conditioning or some other form of cooling.”

For those who do have their own AC, Carpenter-Gold says there’s still no mandate to subsidize cooling costs. Local agencies will simply have the option to do that. And — crucially — the burden is on a tenant to ask for the help.

Carpenter-Gold says a public housing agency is functionally a landlord, inherently a tricky relationship, and that could make this a hard ask for some people. What’s more, he says it’s not clear how the message of this new option will be put out to people.

“They might not get the notice in the first place that this is a thing,” he says. “And the residents might not apply in time for them to actually feel like they can turn on their AC … when the heat strikes.”

Even agencies eager to help will need to come up with a whole new system to approve and organize payments, he says, but many of them are cash-strapped and understaffed.

In 2022, the Public Health Law Center and other groups petitioned HUD to subsidize cooling costs for all tenants, just as it does for heating. Carpenter-Gold says HUD could make that change on its own, but it would be a long, bureaucratic process to get done.

In the meantime, a growing number of local housing agencies have scrambled to find funding on their own to provide air-conditioning for tenants. And some are tapping into funding for clean energy retrofits that President Biden pushed Congress to pass.

HUD is encouraging agencies to switch to solar or heat pumps, which can reduce not only carbon emissions but also tenants’ bills. And its new heat guide also touts painting roofs and sidewalks white and constructing shady areas around buildings. Those things can help bring down overall temperatures, even if residents don’t have AC in their apartments.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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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