It’s only April 10, but it’s already 92 degrees in San Antonio.
And 91 degrees inside Margarita Ramos’ apartment.
Rather than sit on her living room sofa, Ramos is sprawled across the linoleum floor. She picks that spot for a reason: Sometimes, she can feel a breeze blowing through the windows and front door.
The slight draft and a single box fan in her 13-year-old son’s bedroom are the only cooling sources in the two-bedroom apartment. There’s no ceiling fan. There’s no air conditioner, either.
Margarita Ramos lies on the floor in front of an open window in her public housing apartment at Alazan-Apache Courts.
Ramos lives in the Alazan-Apache Courts, which was San Antonio’s first public housing community when it opened in 1940. Back then, the apartments were a big step up for West Side residents who’d lived in homes with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing.
But nearly eight decades later, the units lack basic amenities. Most conspicuous, and potentially dangerous, is the absence of air conditioning.
In San Antonio, where temperatures soared to 109 degrees last summer, almost 2,400 public housing apartments — about 40 percent of the units — aren’t equipped with air conditioning. Statewide, at least 7,400 apartments subsidized by federal tax dollars lack cooling capabilities, according to a San Antonio Express-News survey.
Those uncooled homes are scattered across the state, including 1,364 in humid, coastal Corpus Christi and 598 in Laredo, along the U.S.-Mexico border where temperatures reached 110 degrees last year.
Although the federal government mandates that all subsidized housing units have heat — even in balmy places such as Florida and Texas — cooling has never been required. In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development generally discourages local housing from providing air conditioning, unless it is paid for by tenants.
The San Antonio Express-News surveyed Texas public housing authorities that manage more than 250 units. The findings: At least 7,400 apartments subsidized by federal tax dollars aren’t equipped with air conditioning, including almost 2,400 in San Antonio, about 40 percent of the total. That figure does not include units controlled by small housing authorities, privately-managed apartments that receive federal assistance or units that tenants rent using Section 8 vouchers. HUD does not require that air conditioning be provided in any of those programs.
Government officials in San Antonio want to change that. The city and San Antonio Housing Authority are working with private foundations to purchase and install one window air conditioner in each public housing unit that lacks one, with a goal of finishing the job before summer.
But across Texas, there’s no state law that requires landlords, including local housing authorities managing government-subsidized housing, to provide air conditioners. That leaves some of the most physically and financially vulnerable Texans to shell out their own cash to install window units and shoulder the electricity costs to chill often outdated, uninsulated homes.
For tenants paying rent for those apartments, summer days are spent trying to escape the smothering blanket of heat. Scientists predict it’ll only get worse. In San Antonio, for example, it’s estimated the city could see two to three additional weeks a year when temperatures top 100 degrees due to climate change.
Medical experts warn some Texans will suffer more than others. Children, seniors and people with pre-existing medical conditions — especially those living in urban areas with more concrete and less tree cover — are the most at-risk of heat exhaustion and stroke. Those aren’t the only threats: Heat can exacerbate conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and mental illness, ailments that aren’t traditionally tracked as heat-related, according to the federal government.
“The bottom line is that HUD is supposed to be providing safe and healthy housing,” said Maddie Sloan, the director of fair housing projects for Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates for socioeconomic justice. “If you’re providing housing in which there is a potential for people to die of heat stroke, then you’re not providing safe and healthy housing.”
Ramos is no stranger to physical work. As a caregiver for the elderly, she’s used to spending her days cooking, sweeping, mopping, scrubbing and lifting heavy objects for clients. Since she doesn’t have a car, she often hauls heavy bags of groceries down the sidewalk, on and off the bus.
But lately, the 1-mile round-trip walk between her home and son’s middle school has left her out of breath. She’s lived with diabetes for almost two decades, and the intensity of her symptoms seems to mirror that of the Texas heat. Earlier this month, the headaches, leg cramps and nausea got so bad that she had to take two weeks off work. But even though her son is 13 — and she’s seen children as young as 5 walking alone — she drags herself morning and afternoon to walk him to and from school.
Armed with a plastic bottle filled with water frozen into a block of ice, she battles the afternoon sun, marching along the sidewalk and squinting as the heat radiates off the pavement. Sometimes, when she feels too light-headed, she and her son stop under a tree. She imagines sprinting back home, away from the heat. But the strength to do so always escapes her.
It would be nice to return to an air-conditioned living room, but Ramos doesn’t have that luxury. So she collapses on the floor, where the slight breeze feels most noticeable.
Ramos thinks the heat worsens her medical conditions. Heat kills usually more Americans each year than all other weather hazards, including hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, according to the federal government. By 2050, rising temperatures in the U.S. could cause an additional 21,000 to 28,000 heat-related emergency room visits each year, with a price tag between $6 million and $52 million, according to a 2018 study.
Yet the existence of air conditioning isn’t factored at all into whether public housing complexes pass — or fail — inspections by HUD, designed to make sure the units are “decent, safe and sanitary.”
In San Antonio, the Fair Avenue Apartments, a complex built in the 1970s that only houses seniors and people with disabilities, received 78 out of 100 points on its most recent HUD inspection, even though it has no air conditioning.
“Because AC is not a requirement, it’s not baked into the inspections of public housing,” explained HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.
Jesse Valdez, right, and Eleuterio Ruelas take a break outside the Fair Avenue Apartments. (Bob Owen | Express News)Some San Antonio seniors are living in high-rise apartment buildings that don’t have air conditioning, such as Fair Avenue Apartments.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century that HUD began allowing local housing authorities to spend federal money on air conditioning. Today, HUD rules say air conditioning systems “should be avoided whenever possible” if tenants aren’t paying the costs.
There’s been a recent push to change that. Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, filed the “Safe Temperature Act,” a proposal that would allow the HUD secretary to use federal dollars to pay for air conditioning in federally subsidized housing. Under that proposal, HUD could require temperatures in apartments stay between 71 and 81 degrees.
But the bill does not require that units be cooled or provide funding to do so.
In recent decades, dwindling federal funding has left local housing authorities without the cash needed to repair crumbling apartments, let alone provide air conditioning.
Across the nation, HUD oversees roughly 900,000 public housing units with a total maintenance backlog estimated at more than $40 billion, according to national housing experts. Yet despite the growing list of repairs, the Trump administration’s 2020 budget proposal calls for eliminating the fund that pays to maintain and improve public housing, in addition to significantly reducing the fund for operating and administrative costs.
In early April, the head of the San Antonio Housing Authority flew to Washington, D.C., to speak against the proposal. David Nisivoccia said the backlog in San Antonio, the largest housing authority in Texas, is estimated at $300 million and $500 million.
The housing authority receives $7.5 million to $11 million in federal funding each year to upgrade public housing. Once the authority pays off loans and architectural and engineering fees, only $4 million of that funding goes toward projects, Nisivoccia said.
“You could see with that amount of backlog — $300 to $500 million — and we only have $4 million a year,” said Nisivoccia. “It’s going to be a heavy lift.”
In San Antonio, 19 of roughly 70 public housing projects lack any sort of air conditioning, unless tenants buy the window units themselves.
Francisco Sandoval Cueva, 69, lives in an 11-story building called Villa Tranchese on the West Side. The balcony of his seventh-floor apartment offers a panorama of the downtown skyline. It also holds a broken window air conditioner that died last summer. Cueva hasn’t had the money to replace it.
“I suffered the whole year,” said Cueva, who lives on monthly Social Security payments. Last July, when Texas temperatures soared above 100 degrees and people tried baking cookies on scorching car dashboards, Cueva escaped the sauna of his apartment by riding his bike to the downtown public library.
He reads “almost anything” — short essays, detective novels, mysteries and comedies. Asked how many books he finished last summer while taking shelter in the library, he chuckled, then replied: “I don’t know, a lot — like 20 books.”
Some San Antonio seniors are living in high-rise apartment buildings where units don’t have air conditioning such as Villa Tranchese on the West Side.
It was late summer in 2018, and just a few weeks earlier, the temperatures in San Antonio had reached 109 degrees. State Rep. Diego Bernal was chatting with parents after a community meeting in the Beacon Hill Elementary School library, about 2 miles northwest of downtown San Antonio.
“I remember talking to this woman — she was a Latina immigrant mom,” Bernal recalled. The woman said she lived in public housing and didn’t have air conditioning. “When she told me, I was like, ‘Wait, I’m sorry?’
“What my brain processed was that there was an air conditioner that was broken,” said Bernal. But he was quickly corrected.
"No — there’s no air conditioning, and there are no air conditioners. It just sounded crazy."
Bernal asked his staff to start investigating. He spoke with SAHA representatives, who estimated 2,500 to 2,900 of the city’s 6,137 public housing units didn’t have air conditioning. It took months for SAHA to nail down a precise number, but eventually officials settled on one: 2,399 units, scattered across 19 complexes throughout the city. Those apartments make up one-quarter of all uncooled homes — an estimated 9,600 — in the San Antonio metropolitan area, according to census estimates.
Bernal forged a partnership with San Antonio philanthropist Gordon Hartman to make sure each apartment would receive a window air-conditioning unit by this summer. Under the agreement, the city of San Antonio will pitch in $500,000; another $500,000 will come from private donors; and SAHA will cover the remaining $500,000. The housing authority agreed.
“I think they’re being forced to remedy a situation,” Bernal said.
Officials plan to start installing units as soon as the end of April. But that partnership will provide relief only to families in San Antonio. In hopes of addressing the issue on a state level, Bernal recently filed a bill in the Texas Legislature to change the definition of “sanitary, decent and safe” housing to include a requirement for air conditioning. But the bill didn’t pass out of committee.
‘We have a court decision that says you can’t operate a jail without air conditioning, but you can have an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old in a concrete box.’
Bernal was referring to a recent court settlement in which the Texas prison system agreed to cool one hot prison, the Wallace Pack Prison northwest of Houston.
In most of the U.S., a federal government website focused on disaster planning defines “extreme heat” as a period of at least two or three days with temperatures above 90 degrees — the daily norm for most Texans in the summer.
In San Antonio, the housing authority doesn’t know how many tenants have already purchased their own air conditioners. But some tenants without them are concerned they won’t be able to afford the increased electricity costs once the window units are installed. According to SAHA, families living in public housing earn on average $9,700 each year, well below the federal poverty level and the city’s median income of $49,700.
The housing authority said talks are underway with CPS Energy to reduce tenants’ bills. In general, families living in federally subsidized units pay 30 percent of their adjusted income toward rent.
“Yes, it’s a great thing that they’re going to bring ACs,” said Jannet Garcia, a mother of two who lives in the Alazan-Apache Courts. “But it’s like, how scary because what if (people) get evicted because they can’t pay their AC bill?”
Before the start of a recent tenants council meeting at the Alazan-Apache, a group of mothers who live there gathered around a table in the complex’s community room, discussing the proposal that could provide their families relief this summer.
“I got here Aug. 31 of last year; and, oh my gosh, I came with just the funds to get into the unit — I was without beds, air conditioning, things like that,” said Monique Gipson, a mother of two young boys. “And it was completely hot — the ceiling fans were not enough.”
“It just moved the hot air around, didn’t it?” added Adrenna Cervantes, who said she was lucky to receive a donated air conditioner a few months after moving in.
The women chatted, discussing how it seemed like the heat lingered in their apartments’ cement walls even after the summer sun set. They exchanged tips and tricks for beating the heat, including covering windows with tinfoil and leaving front and back doors wide open, even at night.
“You have to sleep naked, take a cold shower in the middle of the night and lay right under the fan,” Gipson said. “And hope that you feel better.”
Cathy Galindo, 60, sits on her sofa as her great-granddaughter Nevaeh, 5, plays in her Alazan-Apache Courts apartment, which doesn’t have air conditioning. There’s no law that requires landlords, including local housing authorities managing government-subsidized housing, to provide air conditioners.
Marina Starleaf Riker is a reporter on the investigative team at the San Antonio Express-News. She grew up in Hawaii and graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2015. She worked for the nonprofit Honolulu Civil Beat, the Associated Press and the Bend Bulletin in Oregon before moving to Texas in June 2017 to join the staff of the Victoria Advocate. Less than three months later, Hurricane Harvey struck. Her reporting showed how a shortage of affordable housing reached crisis levels after the hurricane. Her work was honored by the Headliners Foundation and Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, which named her Texas Star Reporter of the Year for 2018. She joined the Express-News in February. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @marinastarleaf
Design by Joy-Marie Scott.
A version of this article will appear in print on April 21, 2019, on Page A1 of the San Antonio Express-News. | Today’s Paper
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