No family should have to endure a sweltering San Antonio summer without the reprieve of air conditioning. Yet thousands of public housing residents in San Antonio have been without air conditioning for not just days, months or years, but generations. As in, many complexes built decades ago have never been updated with suitable amenities.
For Margarita Ramos and her teenage son, residents of the Alazan-Apache Courts public housing complex, the lack of air conditioning has meant lying on the floor near a box fan to find relief.
For Francisco Sandoval Cueva, a resident of the Villa Tranchese senior and disabled apartments on the West Side, no air conditioning last summer meant spending his days at the San Antonio Public Library.
Other public housing residents have covered windows with tin foil and left front and back doors open. They’ve awakened in the middle of the night to take cool baths and then lay beneath fans.
We learned of these stories and others from Express-News reporter Marina Starleaf Riker, who recently chronicled how thousands of affordable housing units across Texas and San Antonio lack air conditioning. The numbers are staggering: At least 7,400 units that receive federal tax dollars lack cooling in Texas. In San Antonio, that number is almost 2,400.
It appeared something of a local solution was in the works to place window air-conditioning units in every apartment without proper cooling — but federal officials nixed a key piece of funding. That plan was based on a $500,000 donation from the private sector, $500,000 from the San Antonio Housing Authority and $500,000 from the city of San Antonio. But officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the city’s use of a federal grant to pay for these air-conditioning units was inappropriate.
Obviously, the city is going to need to find a different funding source to hold up its end of the deal.
But beyond this, CPS Energy will need to meaningfully connect with residents to establish some type of reduced payment plan once they get air conditioning. The average income for SAHA residents is just shy of $10,000 a year, and many residents told Riker they were concerned about not being able to afford higher electric bills with these window units. Tenants receiving these units are also receiving $15 to help cover higher energy costs, but this strikes us as insufficient for their income levels. CPS Energy needs to offer a better subsidy and structured payment plans, while also educating residents about efficiency.
But even if local officials are able to place an air conditioner in every public housing unit in San Antonio, and even if CPS Energy can offer a better subsidy to ensure poor people can pay their bills and not bake all summer, a policy change is clearly overdue.
One of the obstacles to providing cooling in these units is the lack of a federal requirement to do so. As Riker reported, while the federal government requires heating in public housing, there is no such requirement for cooling.
This strikes us as the manifestation of geographic bias. Air conditioning might be a luxury in states such as Pennsylvania or New Hampshire, but it is a necessity in Texas, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and other states, where heat can be more oppressive during the summer.
The climate is only getting warmer, and heat exposure can lead to illness and death. That means Texas’ federal delegation should be drafting legislation to mandate air conditioning in public housing units in Texas, as well as other warm-weather states, and providing the funding to HUD to install those units.
If HUD’s standard is to provide “decent, safe and sanitary” housing, then how can that be achieved during a long Texas summer without air conditioning?