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By Jim Garcia

Guest Commentary

As we consider all the ways to make Denver a more equitable home for all our neighbors, there’s likely an issue that hasn’t yet made everyone’s list, though it impacts thousands each summer.

The issue is increasing temperatures and a disparate lack of access to efficient cooling for far too many residents.

I have spent the majority of my career focused on community health and I can tell you that policymakers must add this critical issue to their list if they want to make real progress for health and equity. The results of a recent survey that my organization, the Tepeyac Community Health Center, helped to sponsor underlineswhy this issue is so urgent.

We have a growing public health crisis around the fact that our summer temperatures are steadily rising and extending for longer periods of time than they have in our history. As a direct result of climate change, this trend is expected to continue. At the same time, our city codes and infrastructure aren’t keeping up. So, more and more people are living without access to efficient forms of cooling for their homes, tree canopy for their streets and adequate park and pool access in their neighborhoods.

To help better understand the issue, we worked with Open Answer, an organization focused on survey work to elevate community voice and input, to hold one-on-one interviews to collect real-time understandings of respondents’ summer living conditions. Denver neighborhoods surveyed include Valverde, Sun Valley, Elyria Swansea, Westwood, Globeville and Northeast Park Hill, where we know inequities already exist.

It won’t surprise you to learn that we found people with lower incomes, people who are renters and people of color are all significantly more likely to swelter in their homes in the summer without any cooling than their white, home-owning, higher-income neighbors. Not one of us would stand properties that didn’t include heating systems for winter months.

I became interested in this issue specifically because we see the real health impacts at our community health center. The science is clear that high temperatures are a major contributor to health issues, particularly if the individual already has underlying health conditions. These types of conditions are prevalent in the exact communities where access to cooling in homes is lowest.

High temperatures exacerbate conditions such as asthma, heart disease, mental illness and diabetes. Without any underlying conditions, people are at risk of heat stroke and heat exhaustion. National statistics attribute 1,300 deaths, 75,000 emergency room visits and 10,000 hospitalizations to extreme heat events. While the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reports that in 2022, heat caused 60 hospitalizations and 494 emergency room visits, we know numbers are likely higher due to discrepancies in hospital and clinic reporting.

Today, Denver experiences an annual average of 44 days when the temperature is 90 degrees or hotter; 2021 was the city’s third-hottest year on record. Between the beginning of weather recording in 1872 and 2000, Denver recorded no days of heat above 100 degrees. Since 2000, that number has already climbed to an average of three days a year. With our current course on global warming, the number is expected to grow.

Our city leaders can and should take swift action to ensure everyone, regardless of race, income or homeowner status, has access to cooling and in particular, access to the most efficient forms of cooling, not just the 1950s window units that will just add to our climate woes.

This is not far out of reach. The city can use financial incentives to encourage the installation of energy-efficient cooling methods, like modular, window heat pumps that both cool and heat and use less energy, cutting utility bills and lowering emissions. Denver could use existing funds from its Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resilience to expand access to lower-income people, including renters. While the city has multiple paths, the call to action is clear — our most impacted residents with the least resources need access to cooling now.

But our leaders will first have to decide what equity really means in our city. Is it acceptable, as our study showed, that Denver’s Black residents were 10% more likely and Latino residents were 13% more likely to lack cooling in their homes? Is it reasonable that those who rent are 20% more likely to live in homes that are too hot to be healthy? Or that only 28% of that group has access to efficient forms of cooling?

I believe our city leaders know what equity looks like. And once they embrace this issue, they’ll do the right thing and expand access to cooling.

Jim Garcia founded Clinica Tepeyac and is CEO of Tepeyac Community Health Center in Elyria Swansea.

 

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