During 2021’s heat dome, New Westminster experienced disproportionate deaths due to extreme heat. Those who died mostly lived in older apartment buildings: in particular, three and four-story walk-ups with no cross-breeze and no cooling unit.

The deaths prompted Coun. Nadine Nakagawa to bring forward a motion that will require landlords to keep rental units below a certain temperature. More cities are considering similar policies as climate change continues to make extreme heat more common. Hamilton is set to put in place a similar bylaw this summer; View Royal on Vancouver Island is also waiting to hear back from staff; and the city of Toronto was instructed to study and report its findings on maximum temperature requirements last summer.

Advocacy groups representing tenants and environmental coalitions are now pressing Toronto to put a bylaw in place, following a similar motion being ditched in 2018 due to concerns about affordability, expensive retrofits for landlords, and pressure on the electrical grid.

Nakagawa has also seen opposition. When she brought the topic to the Lower Mainland Local Government Association in hopes of asking the province to update the Residential Tenancy Act, it was rejected.

Following that, she put the motion forward in New Westminster alongside Coun. Tasha Henderson. The motion passed in 2023, and staff are getting close to coming back with recommendations for how the city could implement the bylaw.

Specifically, they were directed to “explore the tools available for the City to adopt a bylaw that requires rental units to have cooling equipment, or passive means, that prevents at least one room of the unit from exceeding the standard recommendation of 26 C.”

The city doesn’t want to be “prescriptive” about how homes are kept cool, explained Nakagawa; there might be solutions other than air conditioners, depending on the rental.

“But what we want to say is that tenants should have one room in their house [where] they can escape the heat,” she noted.

As far as landlords having to spend money, she notes that while housing is a human right, for landlords, it’s a business — and “this really should be part of the cost of doing business.”

In response to last year's heat dome, New Westminster is pushing for a bylaw to keep rental units cool. This move could see landlords required to ensure at least one room stays below 26°C, aiming to prevent further heat-related deaths.

David Hutniak, Chief Executive Officer of Landlord BC, points to BC Hydro’s free portable air conditioner program as a solution that is underway for renters. But on a larger scale, retrofitting existing rental stock to have cooling systems will require costly upgrades to existing electrical infrastructure and will increase electrical capacity, said Hutniak, who doesn’t think landlords should have to bear all of those costs.

“These are expensive investments, both of which are borne by the rental building owner with no immediate opportunity to recover these costs,” he said, noting that the association has suggested to the province that the carbon tax the sector pays should be put into a retrofit fund.

“We also believe that tenants have a responsibility to assume some of these costs, as they are net benefactors of these investments.”

New Westminster’s motion specifically notes that costs should not be downloaded to tenants. While the city already has an anti-renoviction bylaw, the motion requires the city to write a letter to the B.C. Minister of Housing to ensure any cooling upgrades wouldn’t allow for legal renovictions or rental increases.

Climate emergency preparations

To Betsy Agar, director of the Pembina Institute’s building program, a maximum temperature policy for landlords fits into a broader need for an overhaul of rental stock to deal not only with future heat waves, but also with cold snaps, forest fires and other types of climate emergencies.

As of now, Canada is “predominately a heating environment,” so Agar notes that peak electricity demand will still be in the winter for the next several decades, giving utilities a head start in preparing and adapting for an equivalent demand spike from cooling in the summer.

The issue of housing being unsafe due to extreme heat twins with other issues to do with housing and buildings, which produce 18 per cent of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, explains Agar.

Many buildings in Canada are not energy efficient, which leads to people spending a disproportionate amount of money on energy, and sometimes having to choose between paying energy bills and other necessities. A recent report Agar co-authored called for an average annual investment of $2.8 billion between 2025 and 2050 toward housing retrofits for low-income households.

Those retrofit measures could look like installing new windows and doors to prevent heating and cooling from escaping, and installing a heat pump. Deep energy retrofits like those reduce energy bills, cut back on energy consumption (and therefore emissions), and make homes more livable, explains Agar.

The more multiple levels of government work together to invest in deep energy retrofits — which make buildings more efficient, less polluting, and safer — the better, she says.

“We need to stop seeing these extreme temperatures as emergency situations, but as our new normal, and we need to invest in these buildings now,” she said.

With files from The Canadian Press

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