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For those who can't afford air conditioning, the summer heat can be deadly

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. has had a historically hot summer. Now, if you've got good air conditioning, that heat may not pose much of a threat. But for those who can't afford it, it can be dangerous. Sophia Schmidt of member station WHYY reports on efforts to get AC units into the hands of people who need them.

SOPHIA SCHMIDT, BYLINE: There are barely any trees to shade Felicia Ashley's block in northwest Philadelphia. Inside her row home, her young nieces and nephew watch TV. It's sweltering because the AC unit near the kitchen doesn't work.

FELICIA ASHLEY: My landlord is actually a friend of mine's daughter, and she said that AC been here since she was little. That AC older than me.

SCHMIDT: Ashley has survived much of the summer with just a fan on her first floor, though she does have one AC unit upstairs.

ASHLEY: I have high blood pressure and diabetes, and I also have a pregnant daughter. And my husband goes to dialysis. So the air is really, really needed.

SCHMIDT: Health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and pregnancy can make you more vulnerable to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. And heat can be deadly. So far this summer, at least seven people have died in Philadelphia from heat-related causes. According to the EPA, heat is the lead cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. Ashley looked into buying a new air conditioner herself, but it was expensive.

ASHLEY: Once I pay my rent, my bills is over.

SCHMIDT: The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 400,000 occupied housing units in Pennsylvania do not have air conditioning. Nationally, that number is close to 11 million. For those who can't afford air conditioning, there is assistance, but it's limited. In a Facebook group for moms, Ashley learned about a tiny mutual aid group based in Philly called Funds Y'all. They've been raising money and collecting used air conditioners to give to neighbors in need. A volunteer delivered a window unit to Ashley's house and helped install it. After a bit of wrangling, it shuddered to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

ASHLEY: There we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR CONDITIONER STARTING)

SCHMIDT: There are a variety of small-scale efforts to address the need for air conditioners. Nonprofits and churches around the country have given out fans and air conditioners. And there are several federal programs states can use to provide AC units. The main one, according to the federal government, is called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. It can help families get air conditioners or pay their summer cooling bills, but how it's used varies state to state.

Pennsylvania started a pilot program with that funding this summer to provide or repair air conditioners for households that already got LIHEAP or weatherization help in the past year. The state says it's provided or fixed over 350 cooling units so far. But experts say, especially with climate change, there aren't enough resources for help with cooling.

MARK WOLFE: The numbers are way too big for GoFundMe, and it's way too big for charity.

SCHMIDT: Mark Wolfe heads the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. His group represents the state officials that distribute funds from LIHEAP. Wolfe says the program does not have enough money and states spend most of it helping pay heating bills in the winter.

WOLFE: The reason states do that, of course, is that the winter heating season comes first and that cooling up to recently was viewed, I think, in many places as a luxury.

SCHMIDT: The Inflation Reduction Act President Biden signed last week includes billions for rebates to help lower- and middle-income households buy energy-efficient appliances, including heat pumps, which act as both heaters and air conditioners. And the Biden administration is encouraging states to use LIHEAP funds for cooling. But fewer than half of states told the federal government they use it to provide air conditioners. The federal program had an unprecedented level of funding this year, thanks to COVID relief in the infrastructure law. But Wolfe says that's not likely to last.

WOLFE: As we look towards next year, we're in the same boat we were before. We don't have enough funds to provide both heating and cooling.

SCHMIDT: Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, dozens of residents have applied for air conditioners from the mutual aid group, and organizers are scrambling to raise enough funds. They've stopped taking new applications for now, and say it could take months to cross everyone off their list.

For NPR News, I'm Sophia Schmidt in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sophia Schmidt | WHYY