Summer heat has arrived (photo: governor's office)
The sudden spread of COVID-19 caught governments around the world off-guard, setting off one of the deadliest public health crises in generations. We are learning many lessons from this pandemic, including the importance of preparing for emergencies early and taking decisive action when they strike, especially in New York State, the epicenter of the crisis, where there are over 380,000 confirmed cases and more than 24,000 deaths.
With summer officially beginning on June 20, another public health crisis is hiding in plain sight: extreme heat. It is our duty to sound the alarm when our constituents are facing danger, and that moment is now.
Extreme heat is the deadliest of all natural disasters in our state, killing an average of 130 people every year in New York City alone. With climate change fueling hotter, longer heatwaves, and COVID-19 forcing New Yorkers to spend more time in their homes and apartments, this year is poised to be much more dangerous.
At highest risk are our Black and brown communities – the same ones that have already suffered the most from the novel coronavirus, and which continue to experience tragic police brutality, rampant discrimination, and the many other effects of systemic racism. All of these issues have one thing in common: the stakes are literally life and death.
In these communities that are already hurting so badly, thousands of families don’t have an air conditioner. Many more can’t afford to run the one they have. As unemployment skyrockets, New Yorkers across the state will be forced into the completely unacceptable choice between putting food on the table and switching on the A/C unit that could save their lives.
We cannot allow that to happen.
Many of the places that New Yorkers traditionally visit to beat the heat—such as pools, movie theaters, and cooling centers—could be closed for large parts of the summer. For this reason, we need to bring a fresh approach to keeping New Yorkers safe and cool by focusing on homes and apartments.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently took a necessary step by dedicating $55 million to provide air conditioning units to 74,000 elderly and low-income New Yorkers.
Now it’s time for Governor Andrew Cuomo to do his part to help New Yorkers stay cool in New York City and across the state.
Currently, New York State allocates just $6 million per year for in-home cooling assistance though the Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP.
HEAP funds are disbursed on a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning that many households that need help will get turned away if available funding doesn’t meet the scope of the need.
But importantly, as part of the federal CARES Act, Congress recently allocated $28.8 million to New York State in additional HEAP funding. These funds should immediately be allocated to address cooling support this summer for our vulnerable residents.
Governor Cuomo should simultaneously reform the state’s HEAP program, managed by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), to ensure this desperately needed financial aid reaches those who need it most.
First, the Governor should expand program eligibility to include NYCHA and Section 8 residents, historically barred from the program. He should also simplify medical documentation requirements to ease the burden on our health-care system. Finally, he should expand HEAP to go beyond providing A/C units by authorizing cash grants to help households pay their higher summertime electricity bills.
These important reforms can all be accomplished by executive order. The time to act is now – lives depend on it.