Summer has yet to officially start and Breshna Kayoumi and her five children are already struggling with extreme temperatures in their Toronto apartment equipped with just one air conditioner.

“I can’t afford to have AC in every room… . This is the only air conditioner we have, and it’s in the living room,” said Kayoumi. “Most of the time, we have no other option but to sit in the living room because it’s too hot to be in the bedrooms. We want the city to take action and help us.”

Kayoumi’s family occupies a downtown highrise in the St. James Town neighbourhood, where she is a community leader and part of the newly formed Toronto Heat Safety Coalition of tenant advocacy and environmental organizations.

The coalition is urging the City of Toronto to take immediate steps to protect tenants from extreme heat. It stresses the necessity of implementing a bylaw to cap temperatures in rental units at 26C. The coalition is also calling for the provision of free cooling solutions for eligible residents, financial aid for utility costs and funding for landlords to upgrade buildings without burdening tenants.

High temperatures pose health risks, especially for tenants without active cooling, the coalition notes. The elderly, children, disabled individuals, those with medical conditions, low-income tenants and isolated individuals are particularly vulnerable.

Climate change is already making Toronto hotter, but the days over 30C are likely to triple from 20 to 66 annually by the 2040s, the coalition said.

While the city already has a bylaw protecting tenants from extreme cold, it’s essential to better protect people from extreme heat as climate change worsens, experts suggest.

“Toronto has a minimum temperature by-law that ensures that tenants have heat in the winter,” says Jacqueline Wilson from Canadian Environmental Law Association in a statement shared with Canada’s National Observer. “It’s time that Toronto implements a maximum temperature by-law to ensure Torontonians are safe in their own homes during hot summer days, too – especially as the climate continues to warm.”

The Heat Safety coalition says Toronto City Council requested a staff report on an adequate temperature bylaw that was due in the first quarter of this year. However, that report has not yet been released.

The Toronto Heat Safety coalition is urging the City of Toronto to take immediate steps to protect tenants from extreme heat. It stresses the necessity of implementing a bylaw to cap temperatures in rental units at 26C. #extreme heat #protect tenants

"We have been asking the city to track heat-related deaths and illnesses for years, to provide AC for those who need it, and make a maximum heat by-law. The city must take action now or more people will suffer this summer,” says Christena Abbott, a senior and East York member of ACORN. “I have asthma and other health issues. I have been hospitalized multiple times when the heat gets bad, so I need the cooling in my unit. What will happen to the people who don't have AC this summer?"

Others note that more action is also needed province-wide.

Last month, environmental advocates rallied at the Ontario legislature to support NDP legislation that aims to ensure the province is prepared for extreme weather and disasters caused by climate change. Called the Ontario Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Act, the private member’s bill would mandate the minister of Environment, Conservation, and Parks to develop and publish a strategic action plan to prepare and protect Ontario citizens, communities, infrastructure and the natural environment from the risks and impacts of climate change.

Meanwhile, Kayoumi told Canada’s National Observer she can't open her apartment windows more than 10 centimetres because a city by-law prevents this in multi-residential buildings for security and safety reasons. Already, temperatures are climbing in her apartment facing the sun.

Anushen Selvasegar, who also rents in St. James Town, said: “It’s common for apartment units in my neighbourhood to reach over 30C in the summertime. We need rules to ensure that everyone, including the grandparents and the children in our neighbourhood, is protected from extreme heat.”

Both Kayoumi and Selvasegar live in low-income Toronto Housing where air conditioners can’t be installed on windows not contained within a balcony. The coalition is seeking improvements to this type of situation, as well.

The Toronto Heat Safety coalition suggests the city should provide free heat pumps or air conditioners for income-eligible tenants and seniors, offer aid for additional utility costs for new cooling equipment, have Toronto Public Health track heat-related deaths and emergency room visits, provide free TTC rides on extreme heat days, and ensure backup power in apartments for vulnerable tenants during outages.

City officials say a member’s motion in June 2023 directed staff to examine requirements and alternative measures for high indoor temperatures in apartment buildings. Staff are working with the C40 Cool Cities Network to find solutions for tenants and residents in multi-residential buildings.

“City bylaws do not require all landlords to provide air conditioning to tenants. If a rental unit has air conditioning, the Property Standards Bylaw currently requires that landlords turn it on between June 2 and September 14, so as to maintain an indoor temperature of not more than 26 degrees Celsius,” reads an email response from the City of Toronto.

“In addition, City bylaws do not prohibit window air conditioning units in rentals. The Property Standards Bylaw requires landlords to ensure that window air conditioning units are installed and maintained in a safe way.”

Toronto also has a Heat Relief Strategy, including a Heat Relief Network of over 400 cool spaces such libraries, community centres, pools, some malls and YMCA locations, the statement reads.

As part of the Heat Relief Strategy, RentSafeTO annually reminds apartment owners and operators of heat-related bylaw requirements, which include a designated cooling room in the building and checking on at-risk tenants during heat warnings.

Released last year, a climate change report commissioned by Ontario’s Ford government warned of a significant increase in extreme weather across the province in coming decades. By the 2080s, southern, central and eastern Ontario are expected to experience more extreme heat days, with temperatures soaring over 30C, the report states. The projection ranges from 55 to 60 such days per year, nearly four times the current average of approximately 16 days.

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