With little shade and an intense sun beating down, Mondy Pierre stepped into his mother’s Liberty Square apartment to get out of the 86-degree heat Wednesday morning.
As temperatures crept up toward the 90s, the 38-year-old said he had to pay for an air-conditioning unit for his mother’s home in Miami’s oldest public housing project. They could afford only a small unit that cools only part of the apartment, leaving some rooms hot enough that the heat is still triggering his mom’s seizures.
Yet despite South Florida’s sweltering climate — intensified by record-breaking temperatures the past few years — the federal government does not require air conditioning for public housing. And in the case of the 82-year-old buildings that make up Liberty Square, antiquated and Washington-centric regulations mean each apartment has an oddity for South Florida homes: a heater.
What many know only as a discomfort during a power outage is a long-standing burden for some of Miami-Dade’s poorest communities living in older public housing projects, where if you want A/C, you have to buy your own unit.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“It’s been hot, really hot,” Pierre said. “I really think they should provide A/C to these units with elderly people.”
This week, Miami’s city government announced it had donated $15,000 to the county’s public housing department to buy and install 51 through-the-wall units for residents in Liberty Square. Officials said the units were prioritized for the older and infirm residents. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and City Manager Emilio Gonzalez held a press conference and posed for pictures and videos with residents who had new Frigidaire appliances pumping cold air into their apartments.
But the fact that a basic amenity such as air conditioning is not a requirement might come as a surprise to some. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not mandate air conditioning, nor does it provide the kind of funding that would allow local officials to buy everyone a unit, said Michael Liu, Miami-Dade’s director of public housing and community development.
“The federal government doesn’t fund us for the needs that we have,” Liu said.
Miami-Dade receives $40 million from the feds, far below the county’s $59 million cost to maintain housing for more than 30,000 residents. The county has to make up the difference using rent paid by residents. Liu said his department is forced to make tough decisions about where to spend money maintaining the public housing stock.
Since 2001, the county has required air conditioning in all redeveloped public housing projects. In the past five years, more than 2,500 units have been rebuilt or have begun redevelopment, boosting the number of cooled homes across Miami-Dade.
Liberty Square is among those. The project is in the middle of a massive five-year, $307 million revamp that broke ground in summer 2017 and promises to provide 1,400 apartments, townhouses and condos in a busy mixed-used community with shops and parks. The whole complex will be razed and a new Liberty Square is being built from the ground up.
Politicians and builders have pledged that the transformed living space will revitalize the neighborhood, spark an economic renaissance and reduce crime in the struggling community.
As work progresses in phases, residents are being relocated until they can occupy the new buildings. The first wave of new units is expected to be ready in 2019. Liu said “virtually all” of the remaining old structures in Liberty Square, built in 1936, have air conditioning, though there’s no estimate of how many of those units are not working.
Still, for now, residents such as Pierre’s mother have to make do with a small unit humming through the living room window. Pierre wants to move it to the bedroom for his mother’s comfort and get a bigger unit for the living room, but finances are tight.
The 51 air conditioners donated by Miami’s city government were given to elderly residents and those with special needs. One of them, Frances Rolle, recently returned from the hospital after complications from kidney failure. Her son, Jimmy Harris, told reporters that the unit has made a difference keeping his mother comfortable.
“I hope this makes it better for people,” he said.
The need for air conditioning will only grow as the planet warms and the climate changes, fueling more extreme weather that would trigger public health problems, scientists say. Earlier this year, a group of Florida clinicians formed an organization to raise awareness of the threat of a hotter climate. Soaring temperatures for longer periods of time could exacerbate asthma, heart and lung diseases and mental illness.
The U.S. government itself has warned that poor urban communities are among the most vulnerable in extreme heat. As climate change fuels more extreme weather, climate change reports warn of soaring heat exacerbating underlying health issues, stresses that are harder to handle for people struggling to make ends meet.
“The heat is going to be the thing that gets us on climate change much faster than sea level rise,” said Caroline Lewis, executive director of the CLEO Institute, a nonprofit focused on climate change education and advocacy.
Living without air conditioning in Miami is a problem, but the residents in Liberty Square also live with a puzzling feature in their New Deal-era apartments. They all have heaters.
Liu said the peculiar inclusion of heaters stems from rules written in Washington and applied in South Florida. To Liu and residents like Pierre, it doesn’t make much sense.
“That’s another thing, too,” Pierre said. “Up north, you need things like that. But we don’t need heaters down here.”