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Margaret Wilder: Arizonans renters need protection from the heat

The Arizona Senate is on the brink of passing a bill that could literally cost the lives of older people and vulnerable residents of our state. Approval of Arizona House Bill 2115 could create a public health crisis and must not pass.

Proposed by senator and real estate broker Gail Griffin (District 14), and passed by the House on April 3, the bill prohibits Arizona cities and counties from creating stricter landlord-tenant requirements. So, cities could not require landlords to upgrade air conditioning, require refrigerators or improve plumbing to promote the health and safety of tenants.

With temperatures frequently reaching 110 in the summer, Arizona already ranks as “one of the hottest places on earth between May and September,” according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. The department reports that some 2,000 people visit Arizona emergency rooms because of heat-related illnesses annually and almost 1,200 people have died from excessive exposure to heat between 2006 to 2016.

Tucson, Phoenix and Yuma are among the 10 cities in the country where home cooling demands and costs have increased the most since 1970 due to extreme high temperatures, according to the nonprofit climate research group Climate Central.

This threat to Arizona’s vulnerable population will only grow as global warming increases. Climate Central predicts Arizona’s summers will rival Abu Dhabi’s and Kuwait City’s by 2100.

Even more troubling, my co-authors and I at the University of Arizona have shown that in Southern Arizona low-income communities of color are more at risk from extreme heat due to lack of urban green spaces and high energy costs, a finding substantiated by research at Arizona State University on neighborhood-level variations in heat-vulnerability.

In Arizona, according to the U.S. Census, some 17 percent of the population lives in poverty. Thus, thousands of our most vulnerable people would suffer so a handful of Realtors and property owners could profit.

Currently, the state of Arizona requires only that all housing must have “adequate heating and cooling.” Some cities adopt more powerful tenant protections. For instance, Tempe’s rental housing code requires that all rental units have a refrigerator and a cooling system that can reduce room temperature to 88 degrees.

The proposed legislation would prevent other Arizona cities from adopting similarly stringent codes to protect tenant rights to sufficient cooling. If the state ties the hands of cities and their voters to protect their own citizens, it is blocking local autonomy and violating the human rights of people to have safe conditions in the housing they pay for. No wonder both the League of Arizona Cities and Towns and the Arizona Tenants’ Association oppose the bill.

In cities that suffer extreme cold temperatures in the winter months, like New York and Chicago, landlords are required to provide heat in rental apartments to protect the lives of all citizens. We need similar measures here to do right by our residents.

Yes, Arizona has moderate regulation in place to ensure renters have access to cooling. But the state language is vague, and climbing temperatures may require more specific measures in order to protect renters.

Given the extreme heat we are experiencing, cities in Arizona need the flexibility to strengthen such protections if their elected local leaders so choose. House Bill 2115 cuts off this right, and can lead to a public health crisis. Cities that want to adapt landlord regulations to help their renters stay safe and cool throughout a long and lengthening summer should be able to do so.

Yes, it’s a dry heat … but without adequate cooling, it can be a deadly one, too.

Margaret Wilder is an associate professor who researches water and climate in the Southwest and Mexico in the School of Geography and Development and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona. She is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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