For Sabrina Froehlich and Jonathan Vasquez, sleep was the biggest casualty of Tucson’s 2020 summer of record heat.
The room air conditioner next to the bedroom in their home in Bar T Mobile Home Park on East Drexel Road broke down in March. Fans they installed didn’t help much.
They couldn’t afford to fix or replace the air conditioner because Vasquez, a road construction worker, was unemployed starting in the summer because of the pandemic. Froehlich didn’t sleep most nights and Vasquez got by on four hours of sleep a night, they said.
Summer 2020 was Tucson’s hottest summer on record, and the year as a whole was Tucson’s second hottest year on record. More than 90 daily and monthly records for high temperatures or warm low temperatures were broken.
More of the same is expected, as the weather was also part of a long-term warming trend. Average annual temperatures have exceeded long-term, normal averages for 22 straight years. That is supposed to continue, if not accelerate, in the future.
About 54,000 housing units in the Tucson area are mobile or manufactured homes, said Mark Kear, a UA assistant professor of geography.
Of those homes, about 35% were built before 1976, when new federal standards kicked in requiring better insulation, which is a reason lower-income mobile-home residents are often particularly hit hard by the increasingly hot weather.
Kear and associate professor Margaret Wilder interviewed 72 mobile-home residents in 2019 and 2020 for a broader, long-term research project on mobile-home living financed by Habitat for Humanity, the city of Tucson and the Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice through the University of Arizona.
They found that most mobile homes had swamp coolers or air conditioning. The question was whether they were working and whether residents could afford to keep them running, Kear said.
Some mobile homes had leaky coolers and mold in their walls and holes in floors where toddlers live, they said.
Air conditioning units are often inadequate for their home’s size, and insulation was often inadequate, the researchers said. “We see people stay in one room and only run it part of the day,” Kear said.
A lot of people complained about inefficiency; they might have cooling in a child’s bedroom but not in the parents’ bedroom, Wilder said. “An inefficient system has a high energy cost burden and a high housing cost burden.”
“We found people were especially vulnerable to heat issues, but also with insufficient heating in the wintertime,” Kear said. “Some people were at the edge between homelessness and housed. But we don’t want to paint too broad a brush because some mobile-home parks are beautiful.”
Above all, difficulties of cooling were just one of many vulnerabilities the residents were juggling, the researchers said. “People told us, social service providers routinely told us that they could pay their food bills, buy medicine, pay utility bills and rent. But they can’t do all of these things,” Wilder said.
In interviews, a number of low-income mobile-home residents across the city also told the Star that the heat made life very difficult for them and some said they suffered greatly.
Lisa Coloma, who lives at a mobile-home park in the Flowing Wells area, said that on last summer’s hottest days, “the sun makes it like an oven” inside.
On some days, she couldn’t get her interior temperature below 85 degrees even with a functioning air conditioner, said Coloma, who has lived in the home five years.
At the Cactus Cove mobile-home park in the Flowing Wells area, Alonzo Fernandez said when it gets too hot, he, his wife and three kids ages 1 through 8 pack into one room. His $100 air conditioner, purchased at Walmart, is strong enough to cool one room at a time, he said.
“It’s all I can afford,” said Fernandez, a native of much cooler Nogales who moved to Tucson a year ago and works installing roofs and shingles.
Fernandez said he earns about $380 a week and pays $1,000 a month to the park for rent, water, electricity and other utilities.
“My wife says buy fans, but fans don’t help in Tucson,” Fernandez said.
The problems experienced this past year by Tucson mobile-home owners underscore inherent weaknesses and limits in this city and state’s ability to ensure such residents stay cool in the summer, several UA and Arizona State University researchers said.
- A lack of affordable housing, a long-standing Tucson problem.
- Arizona’s electric bills were the second-highest of any U.S. state during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to figures compiled by a private firm, Ownerly.com.
The typical electric bill in Arizona was $163.26 per month during the period March through August 2020, or 1.3 times the national average, the firm said, citing data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
- The federally financed Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program provides money for electric bills, energy efficiency improvements and energy-related home repairs. It gave $4.8 million to Pima County in 2020. But authorities have said that’s nowhere near enough to meet the demand.
This shortfall is aggravated by a long-standing federal policy directing more money to states with colder climates than warm states like Arizona, said ASU professor David Hondula. In 2019, for instance, Arizona got $29 million for this program, only $2 million more than New Hampshire. New Hampshire’s population is less than 20% of Arizona’s nearly 7.3 million.
- A local nonprofit group, Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, regularly provides free repairs and replacements of defective swamp coolers and occasionally refrigerated air units for low-income people. About half their clients are mobile-home residents.
Demands for this service have grown 10% to 15% annually the past three years, and the program can’t always meet them, said Scott Coverdale, the group’s director.
“Part of it is economics. There are more and more people who are falling — I’m not saying they’re going into poverty, but who have a harder time keeping up with their homes and paying their bills,” Coverdale said.
Also, last summer’s unrelenting heat was hard to navigate, he said. “A lot of people can put up with heat for a while. They put in a fan and they do OK. This year, we have people who haven’t had cooling for two to three years and they say, ‘I just couldn’t do it this summer.’ They have to go hunting for assistance.”
Requests his agency can’t meet often involve more expensive air conditioners, Coverdale said. While the program can usually help with troubled swamp coolers, air conditioning issues and other problems often must be referred to other agencies, he said.
A satisfied client of Coverdale’s program is Irene Acosta, who lives in a mobile-home park on West Valencia Road, just west of Cardinal Avenue. She was made so uncomfortable by the heat last summer that she had to stay at a friend’s house for a couple months, but now she’s happy with the cooler the home repair program installed.
Her last air conditioner cost her $3,500 at a swap meet in 2019. It lasted two or three weeks before breaking down, but she only got back $1,000 from the seller, she said.
So last summer, “It was awful. I’m a grandma, and I’m raising three kids. We would take three to four showers a day. To be cool, I would go to McDonald’s and buy them something to drink,” Acosta said.
But late last summer, the home repair program not only installed a new swamp cooler, it also installed faucets in her bathroom sink and shower and fixed a leaky roof.
But at Swan Lake Estates mobile home park on Flowing Wells Road, retiree Andrew Jogsma is having trouble coping with the heat because only one of his two air conditioners works and the one that doesn’t work normally serves his bedroom.
“I only cool the living area — the living room and the kitchen. The bedroom gets pretty bad. I have sleepless nights a few nights a week,” said Jongsma, a retired opera conductor.
“I have a small window unit. When we have 105 outside, I barely manage to get it down to maybe 90 or 95 inside. If you try to do something, you get pretty sweaty. I drank a lot of liquids in the summer and I spent my days making iced tea.