How extreme heat is driving a call for policy changes in New York

It’s time to revise the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to provide a greater safety net for residents, especially low-income people of color, with little or no access to air conditioning.

In extreme heat, it’s small infrastructure that will save the lives of the most vulnerable.

In extreme heat, it’s small infrastructure that will save the lives of the most vulnerable. NYCstock/Shutterstock

It’s only a matter of time before New Yorkers are overcome by heat again. The inevitable discomfort for most of us is also disproportionately deadly. Heat waves are now longer, more severe and more frequent. And with summer temperatures steadily rising, the public health impact of climate change affects people most directly where they live.

In extreme heat, however, it’s small infrastructure that will save the lives of the most vulnerable. As heat waves become more frequent and more intense, air-conditioning is no longer a luxury, it is a prerequisite for survival.

The most important tool to protect people from extreme heat is an air conditioner. Yet, many people live without this crucial appliance or do not have the means to pay the 20% to 30% higher electricity bills for running one. Low-income, people of color and immigrants are the least likely to own an A/C and most likely to face financial hardships with their utility bills. In Brownsville and the South Bronx, nearly 20% of residents lack a cooling source at home compared to residents of the Upper East Side and Financial District where nearly all residents have access to air conditioning. This reality points to key policy gaps that can be corrected by equipping homes via the federal Infrastructure Plan and revising existing New York state safety net programs.

Relatedly, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal block grant program issued to states, has a cooling assistance component that provides equipment or subsidies to eligible households. However, insufficient allocation of funds for the cooling assistance portion of New York state’s LIHEAP has continued in the face of a warming climate. From 2010 to 2019, cooling degree days in New York City were 30% above the 1980 to 2010 average, while heating degree days were 10% lower. As such, there were more days that required use of an air conditioner and fewer requiring home heating. It is critical that the LIHEAP program adapt to reflect the realities of climate change and changing energy needs.

In New York State, cooling assistance represents a mere 4% of the state’s LIHEAP program budget. Moreover, the program is restricted to the purchases of A/C units for enrollees and does not assist with utility bill payments. Research on heat-related deaths conducted by the Maricopa County Department of Health in Arizona has found that root causes of death are lack of a functional A/C, disconnected service and an A/C unit in the “off” position (suggesting selective use of the appliance as a cost saving strategy). Therefore, bill assistance and shut-off protections are vital complements to the provision of at-home cooling devices. 

Expanding the New York state program in a meaningful way will require revising the eligibility requirements, putting the application online and streamlining the application process to ensure those with demonstrated need can more efficiently access assistance. This can be done through automatic enrollment for households that receive safety net services such as WIC, SNAP, Medicaid, unemployment benefits and housing subsidies. A report commissioned by the Department of Energy and Environment of the District of Columbia last year found that an online and streamlined program application worked to improve LIHEAP enrollment.

Additionally, the application requires medical documentation of need. This is a major barrier for many who have trouble accessing medical care, and people who do not have a chronic illness but still deserve to be safe from the heat. We must be thinking about how to enable people to access services by eliminating barriers.

To be sure, some may question the benefits of an appliance that at once mitigates extreme heat and contributes to greater carbon emissions and is therefore part of the problem. However, we should not sacrifice the most vulnerable as we strive to get a handle on climate change. Insisting on energy efficient cooling systems can serve as a middle ground.

The most vulnerable and energy insecure New Yorkers need programs that subsidize electric bills to make sure they stay cool and safe at home this summer. The need for subsidizing unaffordable summer electricity bills has been overlooked for far too long. The COVID-19 pandemic only made matters much worse. The number of New Yorkers more than 60 days past due paying their utility bills increased during the COVID-19 pandemic to more than 1.2 million people.

The Infrastructure Plan will be implemented in the wake of an increasingly hot summer season with more heat waves and more deaths. In addition to the plan, we need to ensure that the low-income, elderly and communities of color get the home-based infrastructure that will keep them cool and alive.

Sonal Jessel is the Director of Policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, running the Heat, Health, and Equity Initiative. Diana Hernández is an Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health whose research focuses on the health impacts of energy insecurity.

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