The average outside temperature in New York City during the summer is 83 degrees, but in many Harlem apartments that average climbs up to 95 degrees.
WNYC partnered with Harlem residents and the Harlem community group WE ACT for Environmental Justice for the Harlem Heat Project initiative to study the impact of overheating in the city. With collected data from temperature sensors and an accompanying podcast, WNYC hopes to spread awareness and brainstorm ideas about how this project can help achieve practical change.
Harlem was chosen as the prime location to research the overheating conditions because the height and brick makeup of its buildings make it one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city.
Victor Sanchez, 61, an artist and teacher living in Morningside Heights, participated in the project by using a sensor to track the heat in his fifth-floor walk-up apartment.
“My apartment is kind of like an inferno. I can definitely say that it’s dangerous to be in my apartment during certain hours of the day,” Sanchez said. “Air conditioners are expensive to purchase, it’s expensive to maintain in terms of the spike in your electric bill, and I really can’t afford that.”
Sanchez’s sensor revealed that his apartment got up to 98 degrees for an extended amount of time, which caused his computer to overheat.
“I’m putting the thing that I use to make a living at risk, and I’m putting my own health at risk,” Sanchez said.
When summer hits, the economic disparity among city residents becomes more apparent than during the rest of the year. For many people, air conditioners are the easiest way to beat the sweltering summer heat. But for others it is frankly a luxury that they can’t afford. Units and monthly electric bills are increasingly expensive.
“I look outside my window and I can see Morningside Gardens—a middle class community. I can see an air conditioning unit in just about every window,” Sanchez said. “Literally right across the street there is Grant Houses—public housing—and there are not as many air conditioners in the Grant Houses.”
Sarah Gonzalez, WNYC’s lead reporter for the Harlem Heat Project, explained that many of the residents who participated in the project live in public housing, though some, like Sanchez, do not. The problems of overheating in public housing largely stem from the excessive regulations that tenants have to go through just to have an AC unit in their home.
“There is no law that requires public housing residents to be provided with air conditioning units the way that there is a law requiring tenants to have free heat in the winter,” Gonzalez said.
For the city, freezing is more of a liability than overheating is, but studies have shown that heat-related deaths have risen annually in the city. It is estimated that by 2080 approximately 3,000 city residents could die each year from causes related to overheating.
Public housing tenants have to first apply for permission to get an AC, then buy the unit, pay to get the bars on the windows removed, get the unit professionally installed and send NYCHA the receipts from the installment. NYCHA needs proof that it was installed by a professional because of how tall the buildings are (it’s a liability if a unit falls that wasn’t installed professionally). After all of that, tenants have to pay an annual fee of $120 for each window unit.
That would be a fee of $10 a month. When Gonzalez asked some public housing residents if that was really a lot to pay, they emphatically said yes.
Sanchez said that public housing residents are “essentially paying a heat tax.” “They’re being extorted and that’s not fair,” he continued.
A lack of AC units has led to residents using harmful solutions to try to alleviate the effects of the rising temperatures. Gonzalez spoke to several doctors who told her that one dangerous, but common, remedy that residents use is baby powder. Doctors warn against this because the powder prevents you from sweating, and sweating is your body’s way of cooling you down. Gonzalez was told that “all that heat is going to be trapped inside of your body.”
While the cost of maintaining an AC is often a deterrent for residents, there is another worry—the units’ impact on global warming.
Air conditioners have become a double-edged sword. “We’re sort of trapped while seeking for comfort, but we’re also impacting the environment,” Sanchez said.
At the end of the study there will be meetings with the participants and community organizers. Gonzalez hopes that the biggest change to come out of this series will be influencing the city to do a better job at communicating in various ways with its tenants. Tenants should know their options of where to go to get relief from excessive heat. She explained that senior citizens are most likely not going to have access to smartphones to get text updates, and your typical millennial won’t have a landline to receive telephone calls with information.
Sanchez is hoping that some creative, greener solutions come from the meeting. “If someone were to put a solar cell on the side of buildings, that could probably pay for the air conditioning,” he said.
For more information on the Harlem Heat Project, please visit wnyc.org.