As our city swelters under a relentless wave of dangerous heat, many sweaty, suffocating, and stressed Philadelphians are forced on a desperate hunt for spots to cool down in.
Such scenes are playing out in a number of major urban centers that have large vulnerable populations without access to air-conditioning. Cities issue “Code Red” days in tandem with “Extreme Heat” warnings from forecasters. Those are met by “cooling centers,” typically municipal-controlled public spaces with central air where residents can find reprieve under an AC vent or next to a fan.
Setting up a cooling-center infrastructure during a pandemic, however, is clearly problematic. In response to this month’s heat wave, the city set up 10 cooling centers around Philly, which included some schools, libraries, and parked SEPTA buses. But that’s not enough — as WHYY noted last week, none of those centers are in Hunting Park, which may register temperatures up to 20 degrees higher than some parts of the city, or in South Philly, where Point Breeze is a dangerous urban heat island.
As the city’s director of sustainability, Christine Knapp, acknowledged on WURD’s Reality Check: “We’re clearly not going to be able to do what we’ve done before.”
And, so, Philly’s most distressed residents must resort to doing it the usual Philly hard way: leaving their homes, in some cases dragging their kids along with them, in oppressive and life-threatening heat on an epic quest for a cool spot where they can sit for a couple of hours — if they’re lucky or don’t get thrown out.
That doesn’t resolve the larger issue of what they do when they go back to a home with no AC, baking in Philly’s notorious, pollution-caked urban heat island, now stinking courtesy of fewer trash pickups. As someone who grew up in North Philly without AC in the hottest corner of the house, I can say: It’s not funny.
The heat is especially dangerous for senior citizens, who are already hurting: More than 20% of Philadelphians over 60 live in poverty, the highest percentage of any of the nation’s largest cities, according to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. Seniors are already most vulnerable to COVID-19, so least likely to leave their homes. Plus, the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19 infection in Philly are the neighborhoods most likely to burn up in heat waves.
You’d think beating Philly’s heat would be a priority, given the frequency of heat waves, aggravation to chronic illness, threat to seniors, and correlation with rising violence. But apparently not.
Even in a pandemic facing slimmer local budgets residents shouldn’t be forced into precarious heat wave situations. The negative public health impacts instigate numerous ripple effects, from worsened chronic illness conditions to unbearable economic and housing arrangements.
This isn’t a mystery. Philly has known about its heat problem for quite some time. That city officials are described recently as “scrambling” is befuddling, if not offensive: Philadelphia is among the cities warming the most, with overall temperatures rising an average 3-degrees since 1970—the national average has been 1.3 to 1.9 degrees since the early 20th century (the dawn of the Industrial Revolution).
Yet each year, Philly has failed to find a cooling stride to ease intense heat. The best it’s offering is a barely marketed layer of limited cooling centers, air-conditioned SEPTA buses you have to rush through the heat to catch, and, if you’re lucky, a free fan — which will just blow more hot air.
Other financially strapped cities have found ways to provide cooling measures like free air-conditioning units for low-income eligible residents, mostly seniors. New York City, for example, is stepping up with an ambitious $70 million program secured through grants, with the goal of installing 74,000 free AC units throughout the city of nearly 9 million. About $20 million will be dedicated to utility bill assistance, as increased electricity usage is expected from the AC units. Baltimore outright purchased 1,200 AC units and is distributing those to eligible residents along with 25,000 fans. The cost is still unclear, but it’s a step in the right direction and a model that could expand as need rises.
Despite Philly’s outgoing Managing Director Brian Abernathy giving the city’s classic “well-what-do-you-expect-us-to-do” shrug on the matter, we could still do better. One proposal to consider, particularly as City Council has pressured landlords not to evict pandemic-stressed residents, is a mandate for property owners to install air conditioning—even cheap, energy-efficient room, window, and space units—in units.
Some localities have passed that mandate. The large D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland, passed it into law right before the pandemic. Cities with blazing, over-100-degree days as a norm like Dallas, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona, also require AC in rental units. What, exactly, is the deal with Philly?
Tax credits could also come in handy. “The state should provide tax credits to utility companies for leasing HVAC units to low-income customers,” PA State Rep. Chris Rabb imagines, a proposal he mulled on last session. There could be tax credits for HVAC installation services that donate refurbished AC units, contribute their services to city officials for the installation of units in low-income homes, or a combination.
Some of these costs could be offset through the longtime, popular LIHEAP, otherwise known as the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, originally created to protect vulnerable residents from the costs of what were once long or harsh winters when it was needed. Some states are using LIHEAP funds towards the purchase of AC units for “summer crisis,” as some places describe it, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. But Pennsylvania? Nope—perhaps because Harrisburg is still thinking mostly about rural and suburban residents with enough green space to stay cool, versus mostly Black urban heat island residents who can’t even find a cool room.
City Hall can’t escape this problem by blaming the pandemic: Last we checked, the pandemic hit New York City, formerly the world’s epicenter of coronavirus infection, and Baltimore.
While Philly’s city leaders, assorted nonprofits and institutional heads get to sit up in comfortable air-conditioned homes and offices, it’s just not urgent for them. That has to change.