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Will Canada's biggest city legislate a maximum temperature in apartments?

TORONTO — Anushen Selvasegar can barely fit his hand through the narrow opening in his bedroom window to feel the breeze outside of his 14th-floor apartment in St. James Town, one of Toronto's most densely populated neighbourhoods.
A coalition of tenant and environmental advocacy organizations, backed by seniors' and disability rights' groups, are demanding Toronto bring in a maximum temperature bylaw. An empty pool is seen outside an apartment tower in St. James Town in Toronto, Wednesday, July 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

TORONTO — Anushen Selvasegar can barely fit his hand through the narrow opening in his bedroom window to feel the breeze outside of his 14th-floor apartment in St. James Town, one of Toronto's most densely populated neighbourhoods.

The portable air conditioner in the living room offers some relief, but the cool air does not reach the bedrooms and other corners of the apartment he shares with his parents and teenage sister, and definitely not in a scorching heat wave. Under a policy applied in Toronto's social housing highrises, the windows only open 10 centimetres wide.

Selvasegar, 20, says his family keeps the ice box full and the stove off as much as possible during heat waves. But their options to stay cool are limited.

"We are low income and it's not exactly easy to just buy whatever we want to cool ourselves off," he said.

A punishing heat wave descended over large parts of Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada this week, with temperatures set to top 30 C for consecutive days in some places and feel as hot as 40 to 45 C with the humidity.

Selvasegar is part of a coalition of tenant and environmental advocacy organizations, backed by seniors' and disability rights groups, who are demanding Toronto bring in a maximum temperature bylaw.

Similar to the way landlords must keep units heated when it's cold, the coalition wants the city to legislate protections to keep residences no warmer than 26 degrees when outdoor temperatures increase.

A bylaw setting a maximum temperature for all residential units, not just those already equipped with an air conditioner, would be a first of its kind in Canada, advocates say. It could, in effect, require all building owners to provide and maintain cooling.

"This could potentially save the life of someone who is elderly, of someone who is disabled," said Selvasegar.

Council directed City of Toronto staff last June to study maximum temperature requirements – along with other measures to mitigate extreme heat impacts in apartment buildings – with a report on their findings expected by the end of the year.

Toronto Coun. Shelley Carroll, who introduced the motion at city council last June, said the city was at a "tipping point," and it's "not feasible to ignore this problem."

"At the very least, we're going to have a much deeper consideration when staff wrap up that work than we've had in the past because I see that – that fundamental principle for me – the thing that is no longer feasible is the do-nothing approach," she said.

A spokesperson for Mayor Olivia Chow called the situation in Toronto "dire and incredibly challenging."

"The structure, design, and age (of) our rental stock means many buildings don’t have central air conditioning. Toronto is one of a number of big cities trying to address this problem," Arianne Robinson wrote in a statement.

In Hamilton, city councillors could soon vote on a proposed maximum heat bylaw after staff were directed last summer to develop one as quickly as possible.

Some local governments in the United States already have a maximum heat and air conditioning requirement, including Dallas and Montgomery County, the state of Maryland's most populous district.

Toronto city staff as recently as 2018 chose not to recommend a maximum apartment temperature requirement, citing concerns about how it could set off rent hikes, lead to extensive and costly retrofits and put pressure on the city's constrained electrical grid.

Landlord lobby groups have also been critical of those proposals. Some say such a bylaw could see their members seek rent increases above provincial guidelines to offset their costs, which may create more backlog at the already logjammed Landlord and Tenant Board, the tribunal that oversees above-guideline rent increases.

But advocates say they believe the urgent impacts of climate change, paired with more affordable and efficient air conditioning, have raised the likelihood of getting a bylaw passed.

'We need a bylaw because climate change is not only an ecological crisis, but it's also an equity crisis. And in particular, in relation to extreme heat, it's a public-health crisis," said Jacqueline Wilson, a Toronto-based lawyer at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, one of the groups spearheading the coalition.

To underline the urgency of their calls, the coalition points to the deadly 2021 British Columbia heat wave that lasted from late June to early July. Most of the 619 people who died lived in places with no or inadequate air conditioning, and nearly all of them died indoors, a panel convened by the BC Coroner's Service found.

The majority of people who died were also elderly, had a disability or chronic health condition, lived in lower-income neighbourhoods, or lived alone. Many people, including those with mobility or cognitive issues, cannot be expected to leave their homes in extreme heat events to access cool areas elsewhere – they will need services to come to them, the panel concluded.

The panel also noted people were most in danger when indoor temperatures remained above 26 C, the threshold adopted by advocates in their calls for a maximum heat bylaw.

The bylaw would help alleviate the strain on the health-care system and "more fairly protect people who currently don't have access to any of these protections at home," said Dr. Edward Xie, an emergency room doctor in Toronto.

"The higher the temperature goes, the higher the risk goes," he said.

Climate change, driven by the burning of planet-warming fossil fuels, has already increased the likelihood of extreme heat in Canada's most populous city, where hundreds of thousands of people live in places without air conditioning.

The number of days above 30 C has jumped from an average of eight days in the 1950s to about 18 days per year now, a recent city report said. If global emissions stay on their current track, that could increase to 29 days by around the 2030s, and 54 days by the 2060s, the report said.

Some landlord groups, however, are wary of a bylaw that could see their members spend money to supply and maintain air conditioners.

"The devil would be in the details," said Boubah Bah, the chair of the lobby group Small Ownership Landlords Ontario.

"If it's mandated, then there will be costs involved. And that cost, somebody will have to pay for it. And I'm telling you, it won't be the landlord. The landlord will always pass the cost to the tenant."

Jacqueline Wilson, the lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, acknowledged the issue of above-guideline increases is "serious." She suggested stronger rent control and policies to protect tenants from so-called "renovictions" and "demovictions" – when landlords evict tenants on the pretence of unit upgrades – could help mitigate the problem.

The federal and provincial governments would also need to come through with strong funding support for "deep" retrofits to mitigate costs getting passed to tenants, she said. Monthly benefit programs that already help low-income tenants cover utilities costs, such as the Ontario Electricity Support Program, could be upped in the summer months to cover the costs of running an air conditioner.

The coalition suggests giving landlords a year to comply with any eventual bylaw. It's the same timeline the province gave Ontario long-term care homes when it legislated a requirement for them to install air conditioning in all resident rooms by June 2022.

"The bottom line is that renters cannot be left to face serious health risks, and even death, in their homes because of exposure to extreme heat," Wilson said.

"The starting point of any analysis has to be public health interventions that will save lives."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2024.

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press