Collier’s Weekly: In Pittsburgh – Air Conditioning Shouldn’t Be a Luxury

PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

It’s going to get hot around here.

We’ve only had a few unseasonably warm days as of yet, thankfully, but that sweltering 90-degree mark is just around the corner.

When it hits, I probably won’t spend much time on the second floor of my house.

My place doesn’t have central air. We’ve got a couple of large, freestanding A/C units — the kind that vents into windows — and that keeps the ground floor acceptably cool, even on hotter days. Upstairs, though, it’s hopeless. Even with both units running, the interior temperature up there frequently hits 85 degrees. I’ve seen it pass 90.

And I’m fortunate — ineffective though it may be, at least I have a bit of air conditioning. A friend without any, who has a third-floor bedroom, told me his thermometer hit 115 degrees.

Let’s make it simple: That’s not OK.

No one should have to try and sleep in a room that’s 115 degrees, or even 90. It’s not healthy for anyone, and it’s an extreme health risk to the elderly population and those with certain medical conditions. It’s also impossible to focus during extreme heat — making home cooling even more essential in an era when more and more work is being done from the home.

Yet for some reason, cooling is still an option in Pittsburgh homes.

Pittsburgh rental units are not required to have air conditioning; in fact, it’s only legally required in Dallas and the state of Arizona. Such laws, however, are products of a cooler era; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average annual temperatures are already a degree higher than 20th-century levels (and many tenancy laws date to the early 20th century, when temperatures were about a degree cooler than average). It’s become a noticeable increase as of late; Pittsburgh, like everywhere else, has more hot days than it used to and reliably touches the top of the thermometer several times each summer.

It goes without saying, but those increases are expected to continue.

Moreover, attention is finally being paid to an equity issue in cooling: wealthy neighborhoods tend to be cooler than poor neighborhoods. In many U.S. cities, the heat index can differ by as much as 10 degrees between wealthier neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods — a gap caused by a number of factors, including shade and the availability of air-conditioned spaces.

As a result, the city is forced to open cooling centers for vulnerable populations when the temperature rises too high — and schools are forced to operate under conditions that impede learning.

We shouldn’t live in a country where the rich can afford acceptable temperatures and the poor cannot. Air conditioning should no longer be considered a luxury or an option; it should be required of every rental property (and, while we’re at it, school) in the city.

Undoubtedly, this would place a burden on property owners; I’d hope that requiring air in rental units would be accompanied by tax breaks or other incentives to help with the transition.

But I’ll admit that, in most property-related matters, it’s tough to get me to side with owners. Yes, landlords have invested time and money in properties. Tenants, however, have to live in them. All day, every day. You won’t get far with me by arguing that a financial investment is more valuable than a person’s life and health; I’m going to side with the tenants. And no tenant, regardless of what they pay — and, by the way, we’re paying a lot lately — should endure 100-degree heat in their home.

If you were looking at an apartment listing and it specified that a home had no heat, it’d be criminal. Yet a rental property with no air conditioning is routine.

It’s not acceptable.