Though the average temperature in New York City during the summer is about 83 degrees, many Harlem apartments reach average temperatures of 95 degrees or higher. To study the impact of overheating, WNYC partnered with the community group WE ACT for Environmental Justice to conduct the Harlem Heat Project.
The height and brick makeup of Harlem’s apartment buildings made it the ideal location to research these unbearable conditions. Harlem is arguably the hottest neighborhood in the entire city.
“My apartment is kind of like an inferno,” said Harlem resident Victor Sanchez. “I can definitely say that it’s dangerous to be in my apartment during certain hours of the day.”
A heat sensor revealed that Sanchez’s apartment reached 98 degrees, causing his computer to overheat.
The summer weather highlights the economic disparity among city residents. While some New Yorkers beat the heat with air conditioners, others can’t afford the luxury as AC units and monthly electric bills become increasingly expensive.
“I look outside by window and I can see Morningside Gardens – a middle class community. I can see an air conditioning unit in just about every window,” said Sanchez, who can’t afford an air conditioner himself.
Not only does it cost an arm and a leg to purchase and maintain an AC unit, but electric bills skyrocket as the HVAC systems use energy to expel cool air. Especially in older buildings without strong insulation, a typical family can spend about a third of its annual heating and cooling budget on air that leaks into and out of the house through unintended gaps and cracks.
Many residents who participated in the Harlem Heat Project live in public housing, where excessive regulations make it difficult for people to access air conditioning. In New York City, public housing tenants must apply for permission to install an AC unit. They must then purchase the unit, pay to get the bars on the windows removed, and then pay to have the unit professionally installed. Because of the height of the buildings, residents must show proof that their AC units were installed by professionals. After jumping through all of those hoops, tenants must also pay an extra annual fee of $120 per unit (on top of the regular maintenance fees and monthly energy bills).
Sadly, because of the restrictions and expenses, many residents live without air conditioning every summer. Officials estimate that by the year 2080, roughly 3,000 city residents could die every year from complications related to overheating.