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Oregon lawmakers debate heat safety measures

Scott Steben rests with their cat “Rockit” at a cooling center operated by Cultivate Initiatives at Sunrise Center in Portland, June 28, 2021. Steben’s apartment does not have air conditioning and struggled last night with the heat. Currently the center plans to remain open until Wednesday at 9 AM.
OPB
Scott Steben rests with their cat “Rockit” at a cooling center operated by Cultivate Initiatives at Sunrise Center in Portland, June 28, 2021. Steben’s apartment does not have air conditioning and struggled with the heat.

After last year's deadly heat wave, Oregon lawmakers are debating new measures to keep people safe. They include funding and legal rights for air conditioning.

Last year, Jaime Carlton spent months fighting with her landlord to install an AC unit in her apartment. The 62-year-old lives in Dallas, Ore., and is on disability. She says she needs AC as the heat makes her thyroid condition worse.

Her landlord finally relented, but once she had it, the AC didn't work properly. It was dented, and water leaked from it. So she had no cooling when the heat wave hit in June and temperatures reached 111 degrees.

JAIME CARLTON: I felt sick to my stomach, and I felt nauseous. I was just exhausted. And my face got super red, and it just didn't seem like I could cool off.

She went to grocery stores, the library and her local gym to find relief. She even sat in her car for a while, but it was so hot, her car's AC was also struggling to work.

CARLTON: It was really hard because I should be able to stay in my own home.

In Oregon, two new bills would help renters like Carlton and others. They'd provide millions to create emergency AC distribution programs to homes in need and create more cooling centers for emergency relief during extreme heat events. There'd also be incentives for low-income households to buy electric heat pumps.

Currently, Oregon's landlords are only required to provide heaters but can deny AC units for any reason, including aesthetics. One proposal would give renters the right to install air conditioning in their apartments. Candace Avalos, head of the environmental nonprofit, Verde, says these changes are important because the effects of global warming are getting worse, and climate change is accelerating.

CANDACE AVALOS: We have to create a plan, a strategy that's going to answer the short-term needs while building the long-term future.

Oregon is not alone. Some cities in Arizona require rental units to be kept cool to a certain set temperature. California and Illinois also have laws on extreme heat relief emergencies. But experts like Aaron Bernstein with C-CHANGE at Harvard School of Public Health says there's more to do.

AARON BERNSTEIN: Cooling centers are great if people use them, but it turns out that in many cases, the most vulnerable people don't.

Bernstein says cities like Miami, Los Angeles and Phoenix have hired chief heat officers to raise awareness of its dangers and find ways to protect the most vulnerable communities. He also says cities can address urban heat islands, places where lots of concrete or industrial buildings absorb heat and radiate it back out. He says planting more trees can make those places cooler and help other problems, like reducing air pollution.

BERNSTEIN: We have to recognize that, particularly for people in cities, the vast majority of warming is happening from the built environment, far more than from climate change. And that means we can do things right now to reduce that dramatically.

Bernstein says looking at the past for solutions is no longer an option as temperatures continue to rise, but there's lots of things cities can do to keep people safe in a different future.

Copyright NPR.

Monica Samayoa is a reporter with OPB’s Science & Environment unit. Before OPB, Monica was an on-call general assignment reporter at KQED in San Francisco. She also helped produce The California Report and KQED Newsroom. Monica holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts from San Francisco State University.