Even before summer officially arrived June 21, it had been hot in Denver — record-tying hot. As temperatures soared into the high 90s for multiple days, Denver tied all-time heat records on June 11 and June 13.
If you’re fortuitous enough to have air conditioning or cooling, you probably stayed home in the cool air. But many Denver renters who don’t have air conditioning don’t have that luxury: and it can have serious impacts on their health.
This scorching prelude to summer isn’t an outlier. Just a year ago, Denver experienced the third-hottest summer on record, and last year we saw our longest snowless streak in history, dating back to 1887. Climate change is rapidly making large swaths of the country, including Denver, hotter and hotter.
It’s even hotter than that in certain neighborhoods. In Denver’s historically redlined communities — historically black, brown, and indigenous neighborhoods where discriminatory lending practices have resulted in less wealth and community investment — are almost 12 degrees hotter than other nearby neighborhoods. And yet, the City of Denver estimates that some 30% of Denver households don’t have functioning air conditioning or cooling.
Heat doesn’t just make us uncomfortable; there are tremendous health implications. Extreme heat kills about 600 people in the United States annually, the leading weather-related cause of death. It also affects cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous system functions, and can cause dehydration, kidney disease, and other chronic health issues, particularly for children, older individuals, and those with pre-existing health conditions and fewer social connections.
For a recent example, a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest last summer directly contributed to 83 deaths in Oregon and at least 100 deaths in Washington state. As summers continue to become hotter, and last longer, Denver should take steps to mitigate negative health impacts that arise from extreme heat waves.
Renters in particular are vulnerable to severe heat events. Denver renters have no method whatsoever to require landlords or building managers to install air conditioning or cooling, even when it can result in serious health implications.
But they should.
Denver regulates rental units via Chapter 27 of the Municipal Code of Ordinances, with the intention being to “protect, preserve and promote the physical and mental health of the people” by creating minimum health and safety standards for all rental units in the city. The code tasks the Department of Public Health and Environment with creating those minimum standards, such as adequate lighting, ventilation, pest control, egress, and heating, among others. (The full list of rules and regulations can be found here).
Just as we require landlords to provide heating on the basis of protecting public health, we should include air conditioning and cooling as a minimum standard of habitability on the same public health basis. Almost all available science points to climate change driving hotter summers and bringing along with it all the negative health impacts mentioned above. Requiring cooling for tenants will save lives and increase resiliency for Denver renters.
While requiring air conditioning isn’t common in municipalities or states across the country, it’s not unheard of. Historically hot cities like Phoenix, Tempe, and Dallas have had cooling requirements on the books for years. Montgomery County, Md., with a climate a far cry from Arizona and Texas, recently passed mandatory cooling for renters, citing the importance of safe and cool environments for renters as climate change drives “hotter days for longer periods of time.” Each program fundamentally recognizes that severe heat has serious health implications and strives to make the community more resilient as worsening heat waves inevitably come.
Mandatory in-unit air conditioning or cooling would be a strong pro-health and climate adaptation measure, but it isn’t a silver bullet. Denver could also increase its number of cooling centers; create emergency text alerts for severe heat events with resources for residents; dedicate more resources to planting trees, which have been associated with reducing neighborhood temperatures; and consider creation of “resiliency hubs.”
To encourage compliance with the requirement, and to minimize greenhouse-gas emissions as much as possible, Denver should also explore using its Climate Protection Fund to offset the costs of electric heat pumps, which provide both heating and cooling.
For our most vulnerable residents, severe heat waves can be difficult to endure. They seriously impact our health. Air conditioning and cooling should be considered a critical climate-adaptation measure that protects people’s health as these events become more commonplace. Denver should take proactive measures to ensure renters stay cool, and healthy, by guaranteeing air conditioning and cooling as a minimum standard of habitability.
Michael Ruddock lives in Aurora.