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Vancouver Housing Authority makes air conditioning a priority in facilities housing low

Oct 21, 2023Oct 21, 2023

Air conditioning, once considered an extravagance in the Pacific Northwest, is quickly becoming a necessity as summer temperatures rise.

Buildings that still lack air conditioning leave residents to purchase their own. But with prices of portable air conditioners ranging from $200 to $600, some people simply can’t afford to stay cool.

The issue is apparent in affordable housing, which tends to house seniors and people with health conditions who are vulnerable to the heat.

Afternoon highs in the upper 80s to low 90s has made for especially uncomfortable conditions. July was the hottest month on record across the world.

When the weather gets this hot, Kacey Radford and other residents of The Elwood Apartments in Vancouver ask whoever is watering the garden to spray them with the hose, Radford said with a chuckle.

It’s one of their only options to stay cool.

The apartments are a 2021 initiative by Council for the Homeless and Vancouver Housing Authority to house people exiting homelessness. The units lack air conditioning, and the windows can only open a little less than a foot.

Radford can’t afford to buy a portable air conditioner, but her sister gave her a swamp cooler — a device that blows out cool, damp air but is less powerful than air conditioning.

There’s a gust of hot air as Radford opens the door to her apartment, despite the swamp cooler being right by the entrance.

“It does get hot, and I have a dog,” she said. She said she’ll get her dog, Ghost, wet when it gets too hot.

The cost of air conditioning might not be the only barrier renters face to staying cool. Some property owners have strict rules about how renters can bring air conditioning into their units.

The Vancouver subsidized housing complex, 13 West Apartments, recently sent a notice to residents saying only free-standing portable air conditioners are allowed.

The notice also prohibited the use of “unattractive” or “insecure” materials such as blankets, cardboard or plywood to fill the open window area next to air conditioning units. Only Plexiglas, plastic or wood painted white can remain in the windows.

If residents still don’t follow the rules after 14 days, they can be required to pay a $50 noncompliance fee.

“These requirements are in place to maintain the visual appeal of our community and to ensure the safety and security of all residents,” the notice said.

There are no regulations in Washington on how property owners can restrict air conditioning in their rental units.

Less than a year after a 2021 heat wave took the lives of 72 people in the Portland area, the Oregon Legislature passed a law to keep landlords from banning or restricting portable air conditioning units.

But the law’s broad language regarding exceptions for safety issues or possible damage opened a path for some landlords to continue to restrict air conditioning, KPTV reported.

In recent years, Vancouver Housing Authority has brought air conditioning to many of its properties, through both installations and the purchase of portable units.

Thanks to county sales tax funds, the housing authority is set to bring portable air conditioning units to St. Helens Manor, Crown Villa Apartments, Arbor Ridge Assisted Living, Arbor Ridge Senior and Mill Creek Senior Estates.

Many of the housing authority’s senior housing properties were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s and lack air conditioning, said Victor Caesar, chief real estate officer at Vancouver Housing Authority.

As funding becomes available, the housing authority will prioritize bringing air conditioning to senior housing, since seniors are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, Caesar said.

“We’ve noticed that, when it’s warmer, there are more impacts on our supportive housing, so there’s really a focus on those right now,” he said.

It can be expensive to install air conditioning in buildings, especially older ones that don’t have the proper equipment.

“When you are trying to get the project within budget, air conditioning is oftentimes one of the first things that has historically gotten cut,” Caesar said.

It’s easier to add air conditioning to buildings during major renovations, he said. The housing authority is trying to incorporate air conditioning into older and future developments whenever it can as temperatures rise in the Pacific Northwest, Caesar said.

“Air conditioning is not a luxury anymore,” he said. “It’s really a need.”

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit

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