Andrea Contreras, a Santa Monica College student, felt a responsibility as a pet owner to purchase an air conditioner. She called local stores only to discover none had AC units in stock. The closest was a Costco in San Luis Obispo, about a three and a half hour drive from her house.
“Because my dog was so hot, I had to bathe her a couple times during the week just because she was panting so much, ‘’ Contreras said. “I felt so bad. I would constantly be taking showers to cool down too.”
Contreras is not alone. Residents of Los Angeles experienced a record heat wave in early September, which many people of color and low-income populations in South L.A. had to endure without air conditioning.
“I had to go and live with a family to stay cool,” said South L.A. resident Jasmine Rizo, who does not have AC.
Air conditioning is not required by California’s habitability laws. As the climate becomes hotter, a lack of cooling options could have potentially devastating effects on residents. Only 41% of South L.A. residents have air conditioning compared to 68% of L.A. residents overall, according to a 2020 USC study.
“Relative to more affluent populations, people in communities like South L.A. are both … financially and infrastructure underprepared for climate change,” said Chelsea Kirk, the Assistant Director of Policy and Research at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE).
California’s official data from death certificates reported 599 deaths from heat exposure between 2010 to 2019, but an investigation by the Los Angeles Times estimated the death count to be 3,900 during this period.
While excess heat can be deadly, even non-fatal heat affects South L.A. residents’ well-being.
“I felt more lethargic throughout the week, and I wasn’t as productive when doing work from school or just concentrating on getting things done,” Contreras said.
The Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) is the agency responsible for public housing. Specifically, they aid homeless and low-income people, but they don’t provide air conditioning and have no current plan to change this despite increasing temperatures.
Rizo said that houses like hers are very old and should have better insulation in addition to air conditioning.
While residents like Rizo desire better cooling resources, the LAHD states that AC is an “amenity” for residents.
“The date of construction as well as geographic and climate factors influence landlords’ decisions on whether to provide AC,” the LAHD said in a written statement to Annenberg Media.
Los Angeles County provided resources like cooling centers during the heat wave, but some residents say they are not easily accessible.
To get to the centers, residents could have to wait outside at hot bus stops and take long commutes, Kirk said.
“We were trying to pretty much stay in either parks or malls or big stores,” Rizo said, adding that the heat wave affected everybody that she knows.
Many people in South L.A. have an annual income of less $15,000 a year and are more likely to have housing, transportation and energy burdens, Kirk said.
Heating is required in housing by California habitability laws, but efforts to include cooling have been unsuccessful, organizations like SAJE say. As the climate changes, L.A. residents in “inland urban areas” are most vulnerable to heat through the “strong increasing trends in frequency, duration and intensity,” according to a 2020 study published by American Geophysical Union.
“People are looking for places to go during the heat wave…because being home is unbearable,” Kirk said. She explained how low-income populations are often not able to afford an escape to air-conditioned spaces like movie theaters, museums or restaurants.
She added that SAJE wants “to see a local cooling mandate for rental units, so that way landlords must provide air conditioning units.”
Alyah Anderson lives at Vernon and Central in South Los Angeles. She has air conditioning, but she noticed many of her neighbors do not.
“Some of them leave their doors and windows open just so they could get the breeze,” Anderson said.
Anderson may have AC, but the heat wave across California required so much power she faced power outages lasting hours.
“You have nothing,” Anderson said. “It’s just black.”
Los Angeles is predicted to experience longer and more intense temperature changes over the next 30 years. As fall approaches and the weather cools, worse heat conditions are waiting for residents next summer.