I’ve heard window air conditioners are a fire hazard, and that this is why they are no longer allowed at Decker Towers.
Some fire departments have shortsightedly insisted on the removal of all window air conditioners in senior high rises (shortsightedly because the danger of heat injury greatly exceeds the danger of high rise fires). However every room where the window air conditioners have been installed has two windows which open to the outside. Unless one is to believe that there is a risk of flames at one end of a row of windows , yet a safe place to wait for evacuation at the other end, this is not an issue at Decker Towers.
The BHA says it is within its legal right to order this.
Whether it is within its legal right or not is not our department (though once tenants begin to die we’re not so sure the courts would agree with that). But the BHA is a public housing authority, and we are citizens. It is our business as citizens to determine whether or not a public policy is morally right. Putting the vulnerable at risk is not morally right.
The BHA says that it ran a successful pilot program before deciding on this policy.
Successful pilot program? We think not. Read a tenant’s account of the pilot program here. Or note what a support worker had to say about the pilot program here.
We have good reason to believe that the air conditioner ban was decided on long before the pilot program was implemented. The pilot program was implemented to give the BHA cover for their decision. The actual results of the pilot program were ignored.
Additionally the BHA didn’t run a pilot program to determine whether the costs of portable air conditioners could be absorbed by the residents or by local social services agencies. If they had seriously examined whether tenants coild have afforded the units, they would have quickly discovered that they could not.
If this is a crisis, why haven’t the social services agencies gotten involved?
They have. The BHA has ignored their concerns. It was only after it became clear that the BHA would not respond that Keep Us Cool! was formed.
We hope to have copies of some of the letters sent by Chittenden County agencies posted shortly.
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 2010, 56,000 Russian citizens died in a summer heatwave. If Russia is at risk, what does that say about Vermont? It doesn’t take a heat wave to kill Decker Tower’s vulnerable residents, but the State of Vermont has been gearing up for more, and more severe, heatwaves. In 2011, the Department of Health began for the first time to track heat injury admissions at local hospitals. The State has created a Climate Change Team. 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.