Should heat relief for tenants be a human rights issue?

During Toronto’s sweltering summer months, Heather Gwinnett sits on the benches outside her building in St. James Town with other residents to cool off. Without air conditioning, the 71-year-old’s apartment at 200 Wellesley St. feels like a furnace.

“Tell me how you’re supposed to breathe or sleep here,” Gwinnett said, pointing to her dark living room on the twelfth floor where she lives alone. She keeps her curtains drawn to block out the heat of the sun, but the air is stuffy due to a lack of ventilation and minimal window openings, some of which have been boarded up due to construction outside the building. .

“My breathing is worse from the heat and my hands and feet are swollen. I rely on my pump more than anything else,” said Gwinnett, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which causes blockage of airflow. “Sometimes I have to go out into the hallway to get some fresh air. It’s horrible and no one seems to care.

As temperatures rise due to climate change, heatwaves disproportionately impact vulnerable low-income communities in Toronto who have little or no access to air conditioning and live in areas with limited parks and outdoor spaces shaded, said Blair Feltmate, director of the Intact Center on Climate Adaptation. at the University of Waterloo.

“In low-income areas of the city, there are fewer parks and there are fewer trees available. The heat in these areas can be particularly problematic,” Feltmate said.

This includes residents of St. James Town, considered one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Canada, made up of 19 high-rise buildings built in the 1960s, with a high proportion of immigrants, low-income families and elderly people living alone.

Over 40% of area residents live in poverty according to the 2016 City Neighborhood Profile. Buildings are not air-conditioned and most residents cannot afford their own cooling units, said Kaína Mendoza-Price, an outreach worker at St. James Town Community Corner.

While a Toronto bylaw states that landlords must heat apartments to a minimum of 21°C during the winter months, there is no such law for maximum temperatures on hot summer days that should increase. Of Toronto’s 2.9 million people, about half a million live in older buildings without air conditioning, according to an email from the city.

“It’s a public health issue. It’s a human rights issue,” said Andrew Boozary, executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network. policy options, whether it’s maximum temperature provisions to ensure we provide adequate and safe accommodation, which would see air conditioning as part of that.”

Between 2051 and 2080, Toronto could see an average of 55 days per year above 30 C, up from just over 10 between 1976 and 2005, according to a report from the Intact Center in Waterloo, co-authored by Feltmate. On July 19, Toronto recorded 35.2°C, the highest temperature on that day since 1854. On May 31, Toronto broke a 78-year-old record with a temperature of 32.2°C, according to Environment Canada.

Boozary, who grew up in St. James Town and sees patients in the neighborhood, witnessed how residents struggled to manage the heat while living in neglected buildings. Low-income residents are more likely to have chronic health problems, including asthma, heart disease and diabetes, all of which are amplified by heat.

“In neighborhoods like Jamestown, rates of chronic disease are higher. It is not because of any failure of the inhabitants of these neighborhoods. It’s a lack of access to food security, parks and walking spaces, and income support,” Boozary said.

He had to write medical notes to social assistance “prescribing air conditioning” for his patients, many of whom already have underlying health conditions.

“When you add the element of climate change, the increase in heat, it just compounds it and drives it to a level that we just haven’t seen before,” Boozary said. “The impacts are immense. What we see is this deepening crisis of climate change and poverty.

For some Parkdale residents who live in buildings without air conditioning but can fit units in their windows, things have gotten more complicated. The landlords threatened to evict the tenants if they did not remove the units.

Cindy Therrien, a resident of 130 Jameson Avenue for 30 years, is one of dozens of tenants in the building to have received such an eviction notice alleging that installed air conditioning ‘damaged the rental units’ in which they live by having electricity- consuming appliances. Tenants of the building in June were given 20 days to vacate, remove their air conditioners, pay electricity directly (affected tenants have electricity included in their rent), which would result in a rent reduction or, finally, pay monthly fees. continue to use their air conditioners.

“They keep raising the rent. Isn’t that enough? Now they’re going after AC? said Therrien.

Before installing her window air conditioner, Therrien – who is in a wheelchair, lives with COPD and uses three inhalers – said she would get very sick from the heat in her apartment during the summer months.

“I had to stay in bed. I was vomiting. I am diabetic and could not eat. I could barely hold water,” Therrien said.

Bhutila Karpoche, MP for Parkdale-High Park, said many of the building’s tenants are elderly people with underlying health conditions.

“These are basically renters who are living on a fixed income whether they are elderly or on welfare or are your typical working-class family who have faced the rising cost of living, including the rise rent,” Karpoche said.

In the 2016 Neighborhood Profile for the City of South Parkdale, where 130 Jameson Avenue is located, over 33% of the population lives in poverty and nearly half racialized.

“[I] wrote to the Minister of Housing, calling on the Ford government to establish a provincial maximum temperature to keep tenants safe…and to protect tenants from any type of harassment from landlords, including threats of eviction for having used safely installed air conditioning units,” Karpoche said.

Municipal bylaws state that homeowners are responsible for ensuring window air conditioners are installed safely and may be required to provide proof that a qualified tradesperson has installed or confirmed proper installation. No municipal by-law requires this proof from tenants.

But Mendoza-Price said many St. James Town residents have been told by homeowners not to install window air conditioners unless they’ve been professionally installed.

“So now they have to buy AC and pay to have it professionally installed. The costs are too high for people in this community,” Mendoza-Price said, adding that residents are forced to deal with the heat or finding an indoor public space to cool off during the day.

Placed in the hallways and lobbies of buildings in St. James Town, maps of nearby “cooling spaces” indicate where residents can find fresh air, including the Toronto Public Library and a YMCA. Some of them are almost 30 minutes walk from the buildings.

“Do you want me to walk out there in this heat?” said Gwinnett, pointing to the John Innes Community Recreation Center, a chill space on the map. “It will take me more than 20 minutes. There is simply no escape.


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