Via tumblr: A community of elderly and disabled people in Vermont fighting for their survival, as well as the safety of the caregivers who work with them, as they face a dangerous policy change in increasingly brutal summer weather. (This call to action came to my attention in a post by one of the residents there, an extraordinary disability activist whom I think very highly of.)
The Burlington Housing Authority has effectively banned summer air conditioning at its largest property, Decker Towers, a 150 unit high rise for seniors and the disabled, most of whom are at severe risk for heat injury.
As of the summer of 2013, only wheeled portable air conditioners will be allowed. The price of portable air conditioners is well out of reach for most of the residents. The scale of the need is too great for any social services agency to bridge the gap. Even if somehow every tenant obtained a portable air conditioner, tests showed that these air conditioners did not cool apartments adequately and could not be maintained by residents.
What’s so bad about this?
The climate is changing. Heat waves are a permanent feature of the new Vermont. Many of the residents of 230 St. Paul St. are among Burlington’s most vulnerable to heat injury and death. They are Burlington’s sickest, oldest, and poorest residents living outside a hospital or nursing home.
The west-facing apartments at Decker Towers have an especially serious heat problem. Temperatures in west-facing apartments can reach nearly 100 degrees even on a comparatively mild summer day.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a thorough study of individual-level risk factors for heat wave victims. They came up with a list of conditions of vulnerability: living alone, not leaving home daily, lacking access to transportation, being sick or bedridden, not having social contacts nearby, and not having an air conditioner. The first five points describe many Decker Towers residents. If window air conditioners are banned, all six risk factors for heat death will be in place, and tenants will die in Burlington next summer.
After seeing that the intervention of social service agencies had no effect on the BHA's decision, tenants at Decker Towers are working to change the policy through public pressure. Their top priority for outside allies is appealing to Mayor Miro Weinberger to intervene; a second page lists further decision-makers to contact and other ways to support the Decker Towers community in this effort.
If you're reading this blog, and you didn't get here accidentally by googling for some kind of awfully esoteric porn or something, you probably don't need an explanation of why I'd be using my tree-hugging public platform to try to help keep the window air conditioners running in Vermont's tallest building. But if you do want an answer to that, I couldn't put it any better than the Decker Towers activists themselves have on their Q&A page.
Isn’t air conditioning in Vermont a luxury?
If this were a one story building in a wooded area, with good circulation, occupied by persons in good health, and the year was 1980, it would certainly be a luxury. But none of that is true here.
Decker Towers is an aging public housing high rise. It is impossible to create a cross breeze because of the window placement. Moreover the apartments are not vented in any other manner — even the bathrooms are unvented in violation of current building code. All of the building gets hot, but the west side of the building, especially, is fully exposed to the heat of the afternoon sun, and west-facing apartments without air conditioning can reach triple-digit temperatures on summer afternoons, even on days when the outside temperature is reasonable. Decker Towers is made of concrete and retains heat into the night.
The tenants of Decker Towers include Burlington’s sickest, oldest, and poorest residents outside of a nursing home. Residents here are diabetic, have COPD, have multiple sclerosis, have heart disease, have autonomic dysfunction (just to name a few of the many conditions concerned tenants have reported make them vulnerable to the heat). About half the residents are over 65. Almost every resident takes medication, and many medications cause users to become vulnerable to heatstroke. In short, for virtually every resident, air conditioning is a medical necessity.
Tenants at Decker Towers include the bedbound and those dependent on wheelchair lift equipped vans for transportation. The bedbound cannot go to a cooling center if they begin to overheat. Persons who need lift equipped vans can’t get to a cooling center without giving SSTA 24 hours notice. These same persons are unable to shower themselves. Without air conditioning, these would be among the first tenants to die. But even healthy senior citizens underestimate their increased need for cooling. Without air conditioning, these tenants, too, are at risk.
Then there’s the matter of global warming. ... In its Public Health Adaptation White Paper, the State’s Climate Change Team wrote “Vermont populations with higher intrinsic susceptibility to the negative health effects of climate change include children, the elderly, and people who are immune-compromised or who have pre-existing medical conditions or disabilities (IWGCCH, 2010). Vermonters of lower socioeconomic status may not have the means to adapt and may therefore be more vulnerable to negative health effects (IWGCCH, 2010).”
Putting the means to adapt further out of reach of the most vulnerable on the grounds that it is a “luxury” is, simply, obscene.
But doesn’t air conditioning make global warming worse?
We too are concerned about the environmental crisis — in fact environmentalists are disproprtionately represented among us. It is important that we cut back on unnecessary use of energy.
The BHA’s policy is not an energy conservation measure. Air conditioning is still available for the few tenants, regardless of medical necessity, who are able to afford the units or who are lucky enough to have family who can buy a unit for them. The new policy allows two air conditioners per apartment for the first time ever. It also lifts the previous BTU restriction on air conditioner size. The BHA’s policy is an attack on the poor.
It would be better from an environmental perspective to target genuine energy extravagance by those with the money to waste it, than to target the medically necessary air conditioning of the poor.
This writer is of the personal opinion that Decker Towers is ultimately unsustainable as housing, but would be better suited for vertical farming. But until the day we can house everyone from Decker Towers in sustainable housing, we must give the tenants of the building the means to survive.