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TVO Today: HAMILTON ENVIRONMENT It’s time for landlords to provide air conditioning, advocates say - ACORN Canada

TVO Today: HAMILTON ENVIRONMENT It’s time for landlords to provide air conditioning, advocates say

Posted July 5, 2023

Ontario is getting hotter. What can cities do to keep residents safe as temperatures rise?

HAMILTON — Liz Scott says her Hamilton apartment can feel “like an oven” during the summer. “There’s really nowhere to go to get relief at night. I get problems sleeping, and I get cramps in my legs the size of a golf ball from being so hot.” Scott lives with her sister, who is epileptic and particularly at risk due to the heat, she says.

Scott’s social assistance will help cover an air conditioner, but not the cost of running it, leaving AC out of reach for her household. “I’d still be forking out extra money that I don’t have,” she says. “It’s either keeping cool or going without food.”

For years, Hamilton ACORN, a tenants’ group for which Scott serves as a regional chair, has urged the city to address extreme heat in apartments. Now the city is taking action — but advocates say more needs to be done both locally and in communities across the province to keep Ontarians safe as temperatures rise.

Researchers with the Climate Atlas of Canada report that between 1976 and 2005, Hamilton experienced an average of 16.2 days with temperatures above 30 C. If current carbon-emissions trends continue, it estimates that the average annual number of very hot days will be 63.3 between 2051 and 2080.

And that puts residents at risk. Jacqueline Wilson, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, says investigations into deadly extreme-heat events in Quebec and British Columbia show that the people most likely to die during them included those who were elderly, disabled, had certain physical conditions, lived in urban settings, and lacked access to cooling equipment. “Air conditioning or active cooling is not a luxury anymore,” Wilson says.

Experts agree the matter is urgent. “Active cooling such as air conditioning can be life-saving,” says Joanna Eyquem, managing director of climate-resilient infrastructure at the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation. Cities, she says, are “hotspots of global warming, mainly because of the heat-retaining properties of our buildings and artificial surfaces that essentially soak up heat.” Temperatures, she adds, “just don’t drop overnight, whereas it would be [10-15 degrees] cooler in the surrounding areas.”

In Ontario, the Residential Tenancies Act requires that property owners supply tenants with vital services, which include heating units to a minimum of 20 C. Ontario law does not consider cooling to be a vital service in the same way, so while it allows most tenants to safely install air conditioners, they’re an added — and often costly — expense.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing tells TVO Today that the recent “Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants” plan includes new measures to “expand and strengthen tenant rights and protections, including when it comes to air conditioning.” The ministry notes that, previously, some leases prevented tenants from installing their own air conditioner: “That’s why we are taking steps to solve this problem by clarifying and enhancing the rules to ensure that tenants have the right to install air conditioning in their units.” The ministry says municipalities may establish and enforce bylaws for property standards that could include air conditioning in rental housing.

Mississauga started to include cooling in its bylaws in 2018, after city staff reviewed and updated the municipality’s adequate-temperature bylaw — which now enforces a maximum temperature in units where air conditioning exists and is provided by the owner. In an emailed response to questions from TVO Today, Michael Foley, the city’s director of enforcement, says councillors received numerous complaints about the temperature in apartment units during a September 2017 heatwave. At the time, he says, some landlords cited the old version of the bylaw, which required heating from September 15 to June 1. The new bylaw made the dates flexible and added cooling.

CELA, which represents low-income and vulnerable communities in relation to environmental issues, has created model bylaw language for Hamilton and other Ontario municipalities that goes further than Mississauga’s. It suggests that property owners be required to maintain room temperature to a maximum of 26 C and that every dwelling must have cooling equipment installed by the landlord.

According to Wilson, no Canadian municipalities have this sort of law. The closest she knows of is in Montgomery County, Maryland, where, in 2020, councillors voted to make property owners supply and maintain air conditioning to about 26 C or less in the summer. “It’s quite obvious to everybody that a minimum temperature is necessary,” she says. “Unfortunately, we’ve come to the point with escalating extreme heat … that the absolute same thing is true for active cooling.”

Advocates are hopeful that Hamilton will become a national leader in enforcing cooling in rental units. In May, council’s public-health committee voted to direct staff to look into introducing an adequate-temperature bylaw, which would require that rental units not exceed a maximum temperature. Monica Ciriello, director of licensing and bylaw services for the City of Hamilton, confirmed her department will prepare a report on the subject later this year. Councillors also directed staff to report back on the feasibility of developing a program to help low-income tenants pay for air conditioning and to support building retrofits.

Stewart Klazinga, an ACORN chair, says that this is a “good first step.” In his opinion, policy should guide landlords toward installing split air conditioners, which are more energy efficient than the portable units many tenants rely on. While he and his partner usually spend $56 per month on hydro in the winter, he says, summer can get pricey: “The largest bill that we had was just over $200 in hydro for a single month.”

Arun Pathak, president of the Hamilton District Apartment Association, which represents area landlords, says he worries about that a heat bylaw would shift costs to property owners: “Having the option of having air conditioning is good. I would like to see everybody have the option. But if landlords are expected to provide air conditioners, somebody somewhere has to pick up the cost.” And, he adds, if landlords raise rents in response, that somebody could end up being tenants. “I think it would be better for the city to try and help the people who need air conditioning for medical reasons,” he says.

He also believes that governments should fund retrofits such as replacing windows or improving insulation. “If you’re building a new building, obviously you definitely provide the cooling. It’s a no-brainer,” he says, adding, though, that older buildings heated by a gas boiler often need “a lot of work.”

Lynda Lukasik, who directs Hamilton’s office of climate change initiatives, says the city is working on a number of short-, medium-, and long-term actions to address extreme heat. They include measures such as installing a misting station by the waterfront, raising awareness about cooling centres, and bolstering Hamilton’s tree canopy through the city’s upcoming urban-forestry strategy. City staff also recently presented a heat-response plan for which it consulted with advocacy groups including ACORN. “We want to ensure that our climate-mitigation and -adaptation actions aren’t leaving anyone behind,” Lukasik says.

Matthew Lawson, manager of Hamilton public health’s health-hazards and vector-borne-diseases program, says increasing access to cooling at home is a priority. “It’s quite impractical to ask somebody who is seeking refuge from heat to leave your apartment, get on public transit, or walk a long distance to go to a recreation centre.”

Recently, the city used federal funding to pilot a program though which tenants in three public-housing buildings offered feedback on cooling in their buildings. The city responded by creating cooling rooms, purchasing air conditioners, and offering info sessions. Lukasik calls that a great example of the city and community working together to improve people’s lives: “We just need to figure out how to scale that up as we go — and urgently, because we know more people are going to be struggling with the heat.”


Article by Justin Chandler for TVO Today