Citing the impact of climate change, Harlem State Sen. Cordell Cleare is pursuing legislation that would make more New Yorkers eligible for the state-run Cooling Assistance Benefit, eliminating a requirement that applicants prove they have a medical condition. “An air conditioner is not a luxury anymore,” she said.
Each summer, an estimated 350 people in New York City are killed by heat stress or by an illness exacerbated by hot weather. Of those who die at home, a majority lack air conditioning, according to city Health Department data.
“It’s a matter of life and death,” said State Sen. Cordell Cleare, who represents Harlem and who on Friday unveiled a bill that would make more New Yorkers eligible for a state-administered program that subsidizes air conditioners for low-income residents.
New York’s Cooling Assistance Benefit, part of the federally funded Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), provides participants with up to $1,000 for the purchase and installation of an air conditioner. To qualify, households must earn below specific income thresholds and include at last one member older than 60 or younger than 6—or alternately, include someone with a medical condition that could be worsened by heat.
It’s that last requirement which Cleare’s bill, S07629, seeks to do away with. The senator pointed to more frequent and intense heat caused by climate change—July is thought to have been the hottest month on record, globally—and said forcing applicants to get a doctor’s note to qualify for the AC subsidy “doesn’t make sense.”
“An air conditioner is not a luxury anymore,” she said.
More than 90 percent of households in the city have access to A/C, according to the Health Department, but Black and low-income residents are the most likely to go without. Those demographic groups also represent a disproportionate number of the city’s heat-related deaths.
“Extreme heat—especially when combined with high humidity—is the deadliest impact of climate change. But it does not impact everyone equally,” Caleb Smith, of the organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said in statement in support of Cleare’s legislation.
While the bill is still being worked on ahead of Albany’s next session in January, the senator’s office said it would waive the medical eligibility requirement while prioritizing access for older New Yorkers first.
As head of the Senate’s Aging Committee, Cleare said she hears frequently from seniors in her district looking for help getting A/C access for their apartments. “Everybody’s not able to get up and make it to a cooling center,” she said. “And then when you leave the cooling center, you’re going home.”
Her bill will also likely be amended to include a funding component, a spokesperson said. HEAP is paid for by the federal government and distributed to states via a funding formula, which provided New York with $15 million for the cooling assistance portion this year.
About 15,000 households were approved for the subsidy—including 5,600 in New York City—before money ran out and the state closed applications on July 15, weeks before a heat wave hit the city.
“The program is always underfunded. They always run out,” said Cleare. She said she’s reached out to U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand about the need to boost the program’s budget, and is also lobbying the state to contribute funds to next year’s pool.
“There’s just not enough money. There’s never enough. But now it has become even more critical with the scorching temperatures that we’ve had,” she said.
A spokesman for the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers HEAP, called the initiative “an invaluable resource.”
“While OTDA does not comment on pending legislation, we would readily welcome any additional funding that would allow us to expand any component of this critical program,” Spokesman Justin Mason said in a statement.
To reach the reporter behind this story, email Jeanmarie@citylimits.org.