The heat hit Toronto early this spring, as temperatures climbed to record-breaking highs.
In a country where the thermometer can read -20°C (or lower) in the depths of winter, heat is legally required in residential buildings. Reassuringly, we have laws in place to protect tenants from landlords turning off their heat in the colder months of the year.
But, currently, access to air conditioning is not required under law for residential units. And temperatures are only rising.
“Air conditioning is particularly important given the effects of climate change causing extremes of temperature,” says Dr. Teela Johnson, a Toronto-based hospitalist and emergency physician. “Air conditioning has become just as important as heat, which is already considered mandatory for landlords to provide.”
The topic of air conditioning has had a moment in the spotlight as of late, thanks to the recently exposed state of Ontario's long-term care (LTC) homes. And it's inspiring a larger conversation and a rather hot debate on the necessity of cool air.
In an incredibly overdue move, LTC homes in Ontario must now have air conditoning in some capacity. In April, regulations were updated under the Long-Term Care Homes Act to require that communal cooling areas in all LTC homes have air conditioning by May 15, 2021. Previously, the act mandated that LTC homes have at least one separate designated cooling area for every 40 residents if central air conditioning is not available. Now, these common spaces will all have air conditioning (yes, this is something we're apparently supposed to applaud).
Not surprisingly, critics slam the change for falling short of mandating air conditioning in the rooms of residents, where those who live in LTC homes undoubtedly spend most of their time, especially the most vulnerable. Somewhat shockingly, there are nearly 300 LTC homes across Ontario without air conditioning in resident rooms. On the bright side, 60% of the province’s LTC homes are fully air conditioned, with plans in the works to add an additional 23% of the province's LTC homes to this figure.
And it's about time. Particularly for those most vulnerable, excessive heat poses health risks, says Dr. Johnson.
“The elderly have decreased ability to cool their bodies through sweating, and often have conditions that prevent them from being physically able to walk to the tap or even be able to swallow liquids easily. This can lead to critical dehydration that can land them in hospital,” says Dr. Johnson. “They often also have conditions like chronic kidney disease that make dehydration particularly dangerous because it can cause life threatening electrolyte disturbances or concentrate medications in the blood that are excreted through the kidneys.”
For new parents, regulating home temperature in the warmer months is particularly important. “At the other end of the lifespan, babies’ rooms should be kept between 18-22 degrees to reduce the risk of SIDS,” says Dr. Johnson.
Vulnerable population or not, however, Dr. Johnson believes that air conditioning should be mandatory. “There is no reason for AC to be treated as a luxury, when it is widely understood that heat is a right that is legally protected,” says Dr. Johnson. “Extremes of temperature, whether excess heat or excess cold, have deleterious effects on people and this should be recognized by tenant law. Even those who are younger can be susceptible to effects of excess heat, it can trigger fatigue, light-headedness, and exacerbate conditions like asthma.”
So, it would seem that change is indeed needed. And not just in LTC homes. For many renters, access to cool air is as seemingly simple in theory as installing a good, old-fashioned window air conditioning unit. However, for tenants, this isn't without its headaches.
“AC units are going to be allowed as long as they are safely installed and not prohibited in your lease agreement,” says Geordie Dent, Executive Director of Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations (FMTA). “Many landlords, however, are telling tenants they can't have AC or AC window units or will have to all of sudden start paying for AC use. In many instances this is totally illegal. As such, we also encourage people to check with our hotline if they are being told they can't have AC.”
He stresses that FMTA is unable to give any legal advice under the law, when asked about broken units. “However, if AC is being provided by a landlord, either through a machine or through central AC system, the landlord is required under the law to repair it and pay for the cost of maintenance,” says Dent. “If the tenant provides an AC unit themselves, it would be their responsibility to fix under the law.”
A major issue we’re seeing right now, says Dent, is that thousands of tenants are receiving letters from landlords telling them to remove window air conditioning units, or to provide engineers reports, and requiring them to pay for air conditioning electricity use that's already included in their rent. “Most of these letters are brazenly illegal and can be ignored by tenants,” says Dent.
Dent hears air conditioning-related complaints from tenants first-hand. And there's nothing cool about the current situation that's playing out.
“Unfortunately, many landlords are engaging in coercive behaviour, using pressure tactics to get tenants to pay for AC use or, even worse, remove legal AC units and end up boiling while sheltering at home during a pandemic,” says Dent. “The result is going to be that people who are susceptible to heat stroke or health complications from heat could end up getting sick or even dying.”
Clearly, Dent doesn’t shy away from underscoring the severity of the issue. “While we've asked the province to intervene to stop this illegal behaviour by landlords or provide widespread direction and education to help, they've so far refused, taking a similar position as they did towards Air Conditioning in Long Term Care facilities,” he says. “In that instance, they just let people die. The current plan, unfortunately, seems to be to let more bodies pile up during the pandemic.”
On the affordable housing front, access to air conditioning remains an ever-important focus.
"With more tenants staying at home due to the pandemic, air conditioning is essential for people to keep cool and comfortable in their units," says Marcia Stone, co chair of the Weston chapter of ACORN Canada, a national organization of low and moderate income families. "We've already seen high temperatures and the summer just started."
Despite the clear need, Stone, like Dent, says access to cool air has been a source of stress among tenants of affordable housing.
"At our local ACORN meetings, we hear from tenants who are being charged illegal air conditioning fees and didn't even realize it," says Stone. "From seniors with mobility issues, to families who are working from home and having to have their children attend virtual school, hot days are really difficult for people. Housing is a right, and that means that with the housing we do have, tenants have a right to reasonable enjoyment."
The same logic can be applied to shelters (where one air conditioned area only is required) and LTC homes.
"ACORN has been fighting to get the City to introduce a maximum heat bylaw," says Stone. "If the temperature is over 23°C, landlords should provide air conditioning units or central air conditioning to tenants." Across the board, the battle for access to cool air continues.
In the meantime, it looks like demand for fans will be strong this summer, and they may be among the most appreciated items to donate to those less fortunate.