Should heat relief for tenants be a human rights issue?

In Toronto’s sweltering summer months, Heather Gwinnett sits on the benches outside of her apartment building in St. James Town with other residents to cool off. Not equipped with air conditioning, the 71-year-old’s apartment at 200 Wellesley St. E feels like a furnace.

“Tell me how you’re supposed to breathe or sleep in here,” Gwinnett said, gesturing at her dark living room on the 12th floor where she lives alone. She keeps her curtains drawn to block out heat from the sun, but the air is stifling due to a lack of ventilation and minimal window openings, some of which have been boarded up because of construction outside the building.

“My breathing is worse because of the heat and my hands and feet swell up. I rely on my puffer more than anything else,” said Gwinnett, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which causes airflow blockage. “Sometimes I have to go out into the hallway to get air. It’s horrible and no one seems to care.”

As temperatures rise due to climate change, heat waves disproportionately impact Toronto’s vulnerable low-income communities who have little to no access to air conditioning and live in areas with limited parks and shaded outdoor areas, said Blair Feltmate head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.

“In lower income areas of the city, parks are fewer in number and there are less trees available. Heat in these areas can be particularly problematic,” said Feltmate.

This includes the residents of St. James Town, considered one of Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhoods, consisting of 19 highrise buildings constructed in the 1960s, with a high proportion of immigrants, low-income families and seniors living alone.

More than 40 per cent of the area’s residents live in poverty according to the city’s 2016 neighbourhood profile. The buildings don’t have air conditioning installed and most residents are unable to afford their own cooling units, said Kaína Mendoza-Price, an outreach worker at the St. James Town Community Corner.

While a Toronto bylaw says that landlords must heat apartments to a minimum of 21 C during winter months, there is no such law for maximum temperatures on hot summer days that are expected to increase. Out of 2.9 million people in Toronto, approximately half a million live in older buildings without air conditioning, according to an email from the city.

“This is a public health issue. It’s a matter of human rights,” said Andrew Boozary, executive director of social medicine for the University Health Network. “We need to ensure that we are mobilizing on all policy options, whether it’s maximum temperature provisions to ensure that we are delivering on adequate and safe housing, which would see air conditioning as part of that.”

Between 2051 and 2080 Toronto could see an average of 55 days a year above 30 C, compared to just over 10 between 1976 and 2005, according to a report from Waterloo’s Intact Centre, which Feltmate co-wrote. On July 19, Toronto recorded 35.2 C, the highest temperature on that day since 1854. On May 31, Toronto broke a 78-year-old record with a temperature of 32.2 C, according to Environment Canada.

Boozary, who grew up in St. James Town and sees patients from the neighbourhood, has witnessed firsthand how residents have struggled to handle the heat while living in the neglected buildings. Lower income residents are more likely to have chronic medical conditions, including asthma, heart disease and diabetes all of which are magnified by heat.

“In neighbourhoods like James Town, there are higher rates of chronic conditions. This is not because of any failure of the people living in these neighbourhoods. It is a lack of access to food security, parks and walking spaces and income support,” Boozary said.

He has had to write medical notes to social assistance “prescribing air conditioning” for his patients, many of whom already suffer from underlying health conditions.

“When you add the element of climate change, increased heat, it only exacerbates and drives this to a level that we just have not seen before,” Boozary said. “The impacts are immense. What we’re seeing is this compounding crisis of climate change and poverty.”

For some residents in Parkdale who live in buildings without air conditioning but are able to install units in their windows, matters have become more complicated. Landlords have threatened to evict tenants if they don’t remove the units.

Cindy Therrien, a resident of 130 Jameson Ave. for the last 30 years, is one of dozens of tenants in the building to have received such an eviction notice alleging that installed air conditioning “damaged the rental units” they live in by having electricity-consuming appliances. Tenants of the building in June were given 20 days to either vacate, remove their air conditioners, pay for hydro directly (affected tenants have hydro included in their rents), which would come with a rent reduction, or, lastly, pay a monthly fee to continue to use their air conditioners.

“They keep raising the rent. Isn’t that enough? Now they’re coming after AC?” Therrien said.

Before she installed her window air conditioner Therrien — who is in a wheelchair and lives with COPD and uses three inhalers — said she would get very ill because of the heat in her apartment during summer months.

“I had to stay in bed. I was throwing up. I’m diabetic and I couldn’t eat. I could hardly keep water down,” said Therrien.

Bhutila Karpoche, MPP for Parkdale-High Park, said many of the tenants in the building are seniors with underlying health conditions.

“These are basically tenants who are either living on fixed incomes if they’re seniors or on social assistance or are your typical working-class family who have faced the increasing cost of living, including rising rent,” Karpoche said.

In the city’s 2016 neighbourhood profile of South Parkdale, where 130 Jameson Ave. is located, more than 33 per cent of the population live in poverty and nearly half are racialized.

“(I) have written to the Minister of Housing, calling on the Ford government to establish provincial maximum temperature to ensure tenants are safe…and to protect tenants against any kind of harassment from landlords, including threats to eviction for using safely installed air conditioning units,” Karpoche said.

The city bylaws say that landlords are responsible for ensuring that window air conditioning units are installed safely and may be required to provide proof that a qualified tradesperson has installed or confirmed proper installation. There are no city bylaws requiring this proof from tenants.

But Mendoza-Price said many St. James Town residents have been told by landlords not to install window air conditioners unless they’ve been set up by a professional.

“So now they must buy AC and pay to have it professionally installed. The costs are too high for people in this community,” said Mendoza-Price, adding that residents are forced to ride out the heat or find an indoor public space to cool down during the day.

Plastered in the hallways and lobbies of St. James Town’s buildings are maps of nearby “cooling spaces,” pinpointing locations where residents can find some cold air, including the Toronto Public Library and a YMCA. Some of these are almost a 30-minute walk away from the buildings.

“You want me to walk there in this heat?” Gwinnett said, pointing at John Innes Community Recreation Centre, a cooling space on the map. “That’ll take me more than 20 minutes. There’s just no escape.”

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