Lynne Wall—white, 36-year-old secretary in small business, lives in 1BR on an upper floor of large 1970s-era public housing complex, Central Harlem. Income supports her husband, out of work for two years. Only one room of her residence has AC. Uses smartphone to keep in touch with elderly neighbors she worries about because of their health concerns and lack of AC. Says a small neighborhood park nearby does little to help with heat.
For a resident without an AC, the obvious answer to solving a heat crisis might seem to include installing one. But air conditioners are an expensive investment, costing a large lump sum to buy and more in energy costs later. “We wanted to change the conditions and the environment Lynne Green inhabits rather than changing her income,” team member and Harlem resident Anna West explained. An income boost would allow her to buy an AC, but also might push her out of public housing.
So the team began by thinking about how to allocate limited resources that already exist within NYCHA in order to affect the most change for the most vulnerable people within the housing system. To that end, it proposed building a customizable cooling center or community center in each building.
The community cooling space itself would be multi-purpose and adaptable – used not just for cooling but also as a social area where clubs could meet, families could gather, and city services could bring in resources. The team would set up tutoring opportunities and job consultations, and outfit the space with free wifi. “We want it to have a pull factor rather than just a push factor if you need a space to get out of the heat,” West explained.
To determine which NYCHA buildings should be outfitted first, it would perform a vulnerability analysis, developing a sort of priority matrix to help make decisions about where resources are needed most. Relevant factors would be the heat index, temperature and humidity within each apartment and the building’s placement in the city (in flood zones or in the range of direct sunlight).
The team would also take into account the vulnerability of residents within the buildings, in terms of the proportion who are elderly, young, stuck in their homes for most hours of the day, or who have health conditions like asthma that are affected by heat.
Tenants associations would be a key player in the development and implementation process. “We would equip tenants associations with a toolkit for thinking through how to implement design for a cooling center that works for their building,” added West. The associations would be given an opportunity to pitch their ideas to a committee that allocates resources for this process. In empowering the tenants to design and fight for the space, community investment is built from the ground up.
There are different pressure points to target when advocating for renewed investment in public housing, both on the city and state level. NYCHA reforms are administered by the state, not the city, so the team emphasized the importance of lobbying the state assembly, particularly during election cycles like the mayor’s race next year. Said West. “We should use this as a time to create visibility and conversation.”