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Public housing buildings can now pay for residents' ACs, providing relief to many

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This summer's been a scorcher. A little relief may be in sight for public housing, though. The Biden administration just this month announced that local housing authorities can pay for residents' air conditioning. That's right. They haven't been allowed to do that before now. NPR's Jennifer Ludden is here to explain. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So this might be a surprise to some listeners that public housing agencies have not been allowed to pay for cooling. What's the reasoning behind that?

LUDDEN: Yeah, it does seem odd these days. But, you know, first of all, most public housing buildings are decades old. They were built before central air was really common. And this policy is decades old back to when, in a lot of the country, you really did not need air conditioning. So it has meant that agencies can subsidize people's heating bills. But if residents want to get an AC unit, they have to buy it themselves. And with some exceptions, residents largely pay for that extra electricity themselves.

If utilities are included with rent, this means a surcharge. And, you know, for people with extremely low incomes, even a small bit extra every month can be too much. So a lot of people don't use their AC to save money. And this is especially dangerous because public housing residents are disproportionately vulnerable to extreme heat. Many of them are seniors or children, or they have chronic health problems. Back in 2021, this got a lot of attention because seven people in public housing died in a heat wave in Portland, Ore.

RASCOE: So what is the new guidance from the Biden administration?

LUDDEN: Basically, it says, during a period of extreme heat, public housing agencies are now allowed to pay for an individual residents' cooling cost - not an AC unit, just the utility bill. But this is an option, not a mandate, and the resident has to ask for that help. Now, the Department of Housing and Urban Development defined what it means by extreme heat event. It says that's a period of severe heat and humidity with temperatures 90 degrees or more for at least two to three days, but local agencies can use their own definition of what will trigger these payments. Now, HUD officials say this is going to let people use AC when they need it without risking heat-related illness, knowing they don't have to worry about cutting back on food or medicine in order to just stay cool.

RASCOE: But as you say, this is only an option, and public housing authorities are not required to pay for AC. So how much difference will this make?

LUDDEN: I spoke with Daniel Carpenter-Gold with the Public Health Law Center. He says, OK, it is good HUD has taken this step, but he calls it a very small step and worries it won't change much. For one thing, it doesn't do anything for people who don't already have AC. And for those who do, he says the agency is basically their landlord. So that can be a tricky relationship, and it might be a hard ask for some people. And Carpenter-Gold says, we don't know how this message is going to be put out to tenants.

DANIEL CARPENTER-GOLD: They might not get the notice in the first place that this is a thing. And the residents might not apply in time for them to actually feel like they can turn on their AC or whatever they have when the heat strikes.

LUDDEN: He also says agencies will need to come up with a whole system for approving and organizing these payments, but many of them are cash-strapped. They're understaffed. And he says, look, there's a much simpler way. There already are federal subsidies for heating bills. So his group and others have petitioned to get Washington to include cooling costs in the summer for everybody. Of course, that would be a long, bureaucratic process to get done.

RASCOE: I'm curious - how does clean energy fit into all this? President Biden got Congress to approve massive funding for communities to switch to heat pumps and solar. Is there money for local public housing agencies to do something like that?

LUDDEN: Yes, there is, and the administration is pushing this for public housing, absolutely. They say that, you know, for people with very low incomes, this not only reduces planet-warming emissions. It brings down their utility bills. But only a sliver of that funding that Congress approved is for public housing. Carpenter-Gold, the analyst, says that for a real solution here, he'd like to see Congress devote a much larger chunk, specifically for these retrofits in public housing.

RASCOE: NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thank you so much.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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