Andrea Demerais had two fans running in her Burnaby, B.C., apartment all summer. But she says it accomplished little beyond pushing hot air around her home.
“It was just sweltering,” she said. “Even in the nighttime, you just couldn’t get any relief from it.”
Demerais, 49, says the heat also exacerbated her chronic health conditions, including osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and paresthesia.
“It really affected my joints and made me really, really sensitive,” she said. “They were popping and cracking and making noises all the time. It was very painful.”
While Demerais says she would be able to afford the additional $30-40 in electricity costs per month to run an air conditioner, she can’t afford the upfront costs of buying a new unit.
“I only get like $1,500 a month from being on disability. My rent is $1,000. So it doesn’t go very far,” she said.
Demerais was one of 445 tenants across Canada surveyed by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an organization of low- and moderate-income people.
The survey asked renters to share their experiences with extreme indoor heat, including barriers they experience in securing adequate cooling.
Anonymized raw survey data shared exclusively with CBC showed that tenants with access to AC reported adverse effects of extreme heat less often than those without.
“The temperature gets upward around 30 C in here as opposed to 33 C just outside on my balcony,” said Sandra McCrone, a 64-year-old tenant from South Calgary — even with fans running and blackout curtains blocking out the sunlight during the day.
ACORN’s summary report, published Thursday, identified the most common barriers to having air conditioning: high costs, threats of eviction, and lease agreements that prohibit installing AC units.
The ACORN extreme heat survey builds on issues raised during CBC’s Urban Heat Project this summer, where temperature and humidity trackers were installed in 50 homes in five cities across Canada.
In half the households where CBC collected data, it showed people spent a majority of time above 26 C — the maximum indoor temperature widely considered safe by experts.
With little to no central cooling, the apartments stayed hot through the night even as temperatures fell outside.
Shelley Petit, an ACORN member and chair of the New Brunswick Coalition of Persons with Disabilities, says she has heard from tenants in New Brunswick social housing who have been evicted or threatened with eviction for installing air conditioners.
“We’ve seen people that have had medical prescription notes from their doctor stating, ‘This person needs to keep the temperature of the environment cool because they have asthma, or they have a breathing problem, or they have a heart condition,'” she said.
“How are you evicting people because they need an air conditioning unit for their health?”
In a statement to CBC News, Housing New Brunswick confirmed that “tenants are not permitted to have window-mounted air conditioning units” as a result of a 2021 policy, to prevent damage to windows and accidents resulting from window AC units falling.
However, Housing New Brunswick said that tenants are permitted portable floor units, and encouraged tenants with concerns about their living arrangements to contact the corporation.
The issue isn’t unique to New Brunswick: of the 445 tenants surveyed by ACORN, 27 people said they were threatened with eviction by their landlord if they didn’t remove their air conditioner. Twenty-three people said their leases forbid them from having AC units.
Tenants in B.C. have also told CBC News they’ve been threatened with eviction if they install air conditioning units.
David Hutniak, CEO of LandlordBC, a landlord association with 3,300 members who collectively manage about 175,000 rental units, says this practice is not representative of the broader sector.
“That kind of behavior is irresponsible and reprehensible,” he said.
“Any landlord who is professional and looking to have successful tenancies is going to have a conversation with their tenant about this, and will try to accommodate.”
Hutniak stressed, however, that tenants should have “constructive conversations” with their landlords before installing things like window AC units.
Maria Rekrut, president of the Ontario Landlords Association, agrees.
“Open communication is the way to go with this,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been able to do for 23 years.”
Old buildings prone to lacking cooling
Bernadette Mamo, an ACORN member from Scarborough, Ont., was one of the participants in CBC’s Urban Heat Project.
Mamo, 64, has been living in her apartment with her 86-year-old mother since 1967, but says they can’t install AC because the fuses in her aging unit will blow, causing her to lose power.
“If you’re buying that many fuses all the time, instead of $25 a month for electricity, you’re paying a whole lot more,” she said.
As a result, Mamo and her mother endured the heat all summer, during which time CBC News recorded temperatures as high as 28 C — 31 C with humidity.
“I worry about [my mother] getting heat stroke, even though she’s not outside, because it does [exacerbate] everything: your health, your breathing, trying to focus,” she said.
Hutniak says that adapting units like Mamo’s will require coordination from landlords and governments.
“Cooling an old apartment building is not a simple matter of plugging in a portable air conditioner.… At the end of the day, the electrical capacity within those buildings is generally inadequate,” he said.
He adds that retrofitting aging buildings would also incur high costs that he says many landlords cannot afford on their own.
Tenants want maximum heat laws
To combat the effects of extreme indoor heat, ACORN is among those calling for provincial or municipal laws that would mandate maximum temperatures in apartments during the summer.
“In winter, there’s bylaws across Canada in cities that the landlord can’t let the temperature of the building get too cold,” said Nichola Taylor, one of the leaders of New Brunswick ACORN. “We want to see the same thing implemented for summer for the extreme heat.”
Some municipalities, including Hamilton, Ont., and a suburb of Victoria, are considering bylaws requiring landlords ensure rental units don’t exceed 26 C.
Hutniak says he isn’t opposed to the idea, but expresses that the lack of consultation with landlords from some municipalities is “disappointing.”
“We’re all concerned about heat. It’s a real issue. Absolutely,” he said.
“We want to find solutions, but there has to be a recognition of the challenges, the costs and the balance in all of this.”
But Taylor stresses that many fellow tenants remain vulnerable to the heat today.
“Low- to moderate-income people simply cannot afford what we’re living through at the moment, let alone [with] the landlords adding extra fees just because an air conditioning unit has been included,” she said.
“It’s just not right that people should have to go through that kind of discomfort.”