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As Midwest summers get hotter, Milwaukee’s most at risk have an unmet need: air conditioning

August 23, 2022
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It was only 10 a.m. and already above 80 degrees as Freda Wright slowly walked down a residential block of Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood, clutching a clipboard under one arm. Sweat beaded on her forehead as she navigated creaky front gates and porch steps during a scorching mid-July week when temperatures eclipsed 90 degrees.

Most people answered their door looking wary. Wright greeted them with a smile, maybe a joke, before asking: “Do you have an older adult that you love?” After hearing that they might qualify for a free air conditioner and utility bill assistance, residents immediately loosened up.

Wright was canvassing the neighborhood on behalf of the Eras Senior Network, serving older adults of Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. The nonprofit received a $25,000 grant from Bader Philanthropies to purchase and install 100 air conditioning units over this year and next for qualifying seniors living in Harambee — free of charge.

The program addresses a long-unfulfilled need in Milwaukee, home to some of the state’s most vulnerable neighborhoods to extreme heat — where residents live in urban heat islands and struggle to afford air conditioning and their utility bills. About 36,500 homes in the Milwaukee metro area lacked any air conditioning as of 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The homes are located disproportionately in neighborhoods where people of color live in deeply-segregated Milwaukee.

As Wisconsin warms due to climate change, county and state officials have mapped the communities most prone to heat-related illnesses, educated residents about staying safe from the heat and directed the public to cooling sites during hot days. But cooling centers, while effective for some, don’t necessarily help those who lack transportation access or who are immobile. And Milwaukee County has just three public pools open this summer, with many others closed due to a lack of funding and lifeguards.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s main program for utility assistance focuses largely on heating aid during cold weather. During this year’s heat waves, the Biden administration suggested that states offer utility aid for cooling, but Wisconsin’s program is not set up to do so, typically running out of crisis utility aid before the end of each summer.

Air conditioning: an unmet need

Nearly one-third of Milwaukee households felt the negative effects of extreme heat last summer, according to a Wisconsin Department of Health Services assessment in collaboration with local organizations in Milwaukee. More than half at least sometimes felt too hot in their homes, and nearly one in 10 reported no forms of air conditioning.

A lack of affordable cooling is “a perennial problem” for lower-income Milwaukee residents, said Bob Waite, a senior account manager with IMPACT 211, a 24-hour phone and online helpline that connects local residents with information and resources.

As of Aug. 1, the agency received 78 calls from residents seeking air conditioning this year. But operators have been unable to locate assistance from government or nonprofits, classifying callers’ needs as “unmet.” Air conditioning has sat near the top of IMPACT 211’s unmet needs list throughout its history, Waite said.

“That’s going back more than 20 years,” Waite said. “It’s not a new thing that we don’t have a resource for somebody that’s in need of a free or low-cost air conditioner.”

Milwaukee residents have also texted News414, Wisconsin Watch’s engagement collaboration with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, to inquire about affordable air conditioning options.

‘The climate crisis is a health emergency’

Such needs will only grow in the coming Wisconsin summers. Temperatures across the Great Lakes region are rising faster than elsewhere in the United States as greenhouse gas emissions speed Earth’s warming. Extreme heat days in Wisconsin — hitting temperatures of 90-plus degrees — are projected to triple by the middle of the century, with 70-plus degree nights expected to quadruple, according to a sweeping Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) report released this year. For swaths of western and southern Wisconsin, that means temperatures hitting 90 degrees on 25 to 35 days each year by 2050.

Research shows that health impacts from extreme heat can be worse at night than during the day, leaving overheated bodies no chance to recover, said Steve Vavrus, a senior scientist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Climatic Research and co-director of WICCI.