At her Stockton apartment, Esther Johnson froze pots of water overnight to relieve herself from the historic California heat. In the morning, she wraps them in towels, puts them at the foot of the sofa and blows them with fans to create some fresh air.
It was 107 degrees outside on Tuesday, the day several cities broke all-time heat records. Inside it was 96 degrees.
Californians blew their air conditioning so badly this week that they nearly overwhelmed the state’s power grid. For many of the 24% of households in the state without air conditioning, every day has been a misery and a health hazard.
“Do you know when you go to a sauna? It’s like that,” said Johnson, 64, who is recovering from double knee surgery. Its air conditioning unit has been broken since June and its owner is in no rush to fix it. “My face is dripping and everything.”
California law and building codes require residential units to maintain indoor temperatures of 70 degrees during cold weather. But there is no requirement for air conditioning or other cooling mechanisms to protect residents from the extreme heat, which is quickly becoming our usual heat.
Robert Brooke-Munoz, director of San Joaquin Fair Housing, said immediate help is needed for tenants whose landlords aren’t fixing air conditioning units simply because the law doesn’t require them to.
“There needs to be tougher air conditioning laws and regulations, especially with the heat and our changing climate,” said Brooke-Munoz, who receives daily calls from tenants about failed cooling systems. . “It’s the worst I’ve seen.”
Extreme heat is the deadliest symptom of climate change, primarily affecting low-income renters and the elderly. Despite California’s reputation as a strong regulator, the state moved slowly to create temperature standards that would mandate cooling the same way it does heating.
A bill in the state legislature this year that would have set cooling standards has been blocked by opposition from the California Apartments Association. Instead, the state is tasked with making policy recommendations by 2025, a timeline that’s almost certain to include more heat waves.
Jovana Morales-Tilgren, housing policy coordinator at the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability in Fresno, which led the legislative push, said her organization hopes to move this complicated process forward as quickly as possible.
“These issues are happening now and the people who are feeling them the most are vulnerable populations,” she said. “This heat wave is going to happen again, and who knows if it will be even hotter.”
Californians without cooling
Mario and Elvia Garcia buy ice cream every day to try to keep their five children cool in Lamont, near Bakersfield.
They come home from school scorched by the sun in a house that is over 90 degrees inside. At night, they all sleep together on the living room floor, near the most powerful fan.
Fearing a rent hike, they didn’t ask their landlord for an air conditioning unit. But Mario said government officials needed to “go back to the drawing board” and find solutions. Maybe solar panels or grants for homeowners to install a cooling system.
“They need to do things right so people feel comfortable in their homes,” Mario said.
Extreme heat has become increasingly common in the Golden State with the onset of human-induced climate change. It’s the deadliest nationwide weather event.
The percentage of households without air conditioning varies across the state, up to 54% in the historically cooler San Francisco metro area, and as low as 20% in Los Angeles, according to the 2019 US Housing Survey. from the US Census Bureau.
An LA Times investigation last year found California undercounts the number of people who die from oppressive heat, reporting that the 599 deaths recorded between 2010 and 2019 are likely six times higher.
Growing body research also shows that extreme temperatures disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color, especially in underserved neighborhoods in denser urban areas.
New data from the Department of Energy also shows a disparity between single-family homes and multi-family rentals. In California, 67% of multi-family dwellings in the state lack central air conditioning, compared to 33% of single-family homes, according to an analysis by Professor CJ Gabbe of UC Davis.
Make the owners sweat
AB 2597 by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, reportedly ordered officials to create statewide standards for safe indoor temperatures.
The measure faced opposition from the politically powerful rental housing industry and other real estate interests, which would be required to retrofit existing buildings with air conditioning or other forms of cooling.
Any code changes for new buildings would also have to go through the Department of General Services’ Building Standards Commission, which only adopts a new code every three years.
Instead of passing the bill, lawmakers put $5 million in the state budget for the Department of Housing and Community Development to develop recommendations to the legislature to ensure that residential units can maintain a safe indoor air temperature.
A ministry spokesperson said “it is premature to comment at this time” when asked what plans were to make recommendations.
In a statement on the original bill, California Apartment Association executive vice president Debra Carlton said “changing the rules for existing buildings is not feasible in many cases.”
Older homes and apartments are not designed to accommodate the installation of a new cooling system, she said, adding that new air conditioning systems would put more strain on the state’s power grid. .
After releasing a extreme heat plan this month of April, California set up an advisory committee to study its effects on the Californian economy. He sent occupational safety standardsintended to prevent heat-related illnesses among outdoor workers, at Newsom’s office.
The new temperature standards are expected to vary across the state based on local climate as enforcement protocols are developed and homeowners figure out how to pay for them.
UCLA urban planning professor V. Kelly Turner pointed to the many ways buildings can keep residents cool other than air conditioning, such as using trees and central plazas for shade. But the most important thing is that it is done quickly.
“Obviously it’s insufficient when it’s illegal to rent a house that’s too cold, but perfectly legal to rent a house that’s too hot,” she said.
The results of this year’s legislative session are “a good step forward,” said Brian Augusta, a legislative attorney representing the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
“This week’s weather tells the story. We are going to see more events like this, and I think there will be increasing pressure to act more urgently, but we are on the right track now.
The Bee’s Mathew Miranda contributed to this story.
This story was originally published September 9, 2022 5:00 a.m.