Weeks Before Heat Wave, New York’s Program to Help Poor People Stay Cool Ran Out of Money
A cooling center on the Upper West Side in Manhattan | Galen King

Weeks Before Heat Wave, New York’s Program to Help Poor People Stay Cool Ran Out of Money

Heat kills hundreds of New Yorkers every summer - but health experts say a "cold weather bias" keeps policymakers from prioritizing the issue.

Weeks ahead of a searing heat wave, the state fund designed to help low-income New Yorkers stay cool ran out of money and closed its doors to new applicants.

The fund, the Heat Energy Assistance Program’s (HEAP) cooling assistance program, is typically slated to accept applications through the end of August. It has never closed this early, state officials said, in part because the state eliminated a requirement this year that applicants show medical need.

The state projected the expanded program would serve up to 20,000 households this summer. That’s still a far cry from the millions of New Yorkers—including 1 out of 8 New York City residents—who don’t have air conditioners. And although the program’s budget was boosted this year from $15 million to a record $23 million, it remains a fraction of the corresponding heating assistance budget for the winter.

Meanwhile, the design of the program, which is run by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), limits its usefulness for the poorest New Yorkers. The funds can only be spent on the purchase and installation of a fan or air conditioning unit, not on the cost of running that equipment, even though many low-income residents curb AC use because of record-high utility bills.

In an email, an OTDA spokesperson wrote that “New York State does not currently have the resources to expand cooling assistance to include a billing assistance component.”

Extreme Heat in New York

Requithelia Allen works at the Hamilton Grange Senior Center in Harlem, which operates as a cooling center for seniors during the summer. Roughly 70 people come in every day, she told New York Focus, and in recent weeks, they’ve been coming in earlier and staying through the extended hours into the evening. 

“There are some who stay until the last possible moment, depending on how bad it is,” Allen said. 

Heat waves have killed more Americans than all other weather-related disasters combined over the last three decades. In New York, a heat wave in July 2019 sent nearly 1200 people across the state to the emergency room. The state’s average temperature that month was 84 degrees Fahrenheit, a jump from the 76 degree weather that has been New York’s average temperature in July over the past few decades. So far, the average high in New York this month has been about 87 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most buildings in the state are not designed for this level of heat, leaving New Yorkers, and especially the elderly and chronically ill, unsafe in their homes. Indoor temperatures can be much higher than outdoors, and can last days after a heat wave ends. Different regions face different types of risk: rural areas like Warren County have larger elderly populations that are more vulnerable to heat stress, while urban heat islands in Albany, Rochester, and New York City, where concentrated infrastructure traps heat, see temperatures as much as 15 degrees higher than surrounding areas. In New York City alone, heat kills an estimated 370 people every summer.

Efforts across the state and particularly in New York City have established cooling centers and community programming to adapt to the summer heat. But because most heat stress deaths occur in un-air-conditioned housing, health experts say it is crucial to ensure that people are able to stay cool in their own homes.

At the Harlem cooling center, some of the seniors who come in each day are homeless, some don’t have AC, and some do but don’t want to use it. “They got an AC and they don’t want their bill to increase,” Allen described.

Not being able to use cooling assistance funds to help pay for the cost of running an air conditioner doesn’t make sense to Allen. HEAP should be set up, she said, so that people can put the funds towards the electricity needs of the season — heating in the winter and cooling in the summer.

“It’s like any other subsidy. If you drink milk and have food stamps, but can’t use the food stamps to buy milk, it’s unhelpful,” she said. “If the electric bill doubles because of the new AC and you can’t afford it, it’s unhelpful. The idea is to take the weight off the person who needs the assistance.” 

A Cold Weather Bias

As summers grow hotter, groups like WEACT, a Harlem-based nonprofit that addresses environmental health issues in low-income neighborhoods, have pushed the state to expand the cooling assistance program to accommodate increased need.

That need was shown clearly this year by how quickly the program ran out of money. The early closure reflected the state’s success at awarding funds swiftly, said Diana Hernández, an associate professor at Columbia University's School of Public Health. But it also means that those who anticipated applying for assistance during New York’s hottest season — July into August — won’t be able to.

“There are some communities where 20% of households don't have access to cooling at all. That means they really will exist for the next six to eight weeks in the middle of the hottest season without an option to get that kind of assistance,” Hernandez said.

Over the past five years, cooling assistance has made up an average of just 2% of the HEAP budget, which allocates far more to heating assistance through the colder months of the year.

Kira Pospesel, a Commissioner at Greene County Department of Social Services who works on the HEAP block grant advisory council, said that it made sense to spend more money on heating than cooling, especially given that New York’s climate is generally colder than most other states. “You have to pay for many more months for heat and we can’t have people freeze,” she said.

She acknowledged the increasing need for cooling assistance, but pointed out that “there’s not an unending supply of money.”

Staying warm in the winter is a real challenge for many low-income New Yorkers. But Hernandez argued that the overriding focus on that challenge represents a “cold weather bias” among policymakers.

“HEAP’s origin story is about the inability to find heating fuels. But in the way issues have evolved, this is really a story of cooling hardships and how difficult that is,” she said. “It's not to say that winter isn't an issue, but the summer program has far fewer options.”

The HEAP heating assistance program allows funds to be used to help cover utility bills, while cooling assistance can only be used to buy and install AC units or fans, with a cap of $800. “It’s a huge gap that there isn’t a complementary bill assistance component to the program,” Hernandez said.

Sonal Jessel, director of policy at WEACT, said that while helping people install and use air conditioners is a crucial immediate response to extreme heat, the state ultimately needs to pursue building efficiency upgrades as a deeper fix.

“That longer term fight is, well, we don't want everyone to be installing a single window AC unit, which is super inefficient, polluting, and doesn't really cool down the house for long periods of time in New York City buildings,” she said. “Putting in heat pumps and eventually decarbonizing and electrifying homes — that's our long term solution.”