Photo of apartment building in daytime with brick exposed and balconies.
Apartment building in East York. Photo: David Gray-Donald.

Fighting for the Right to Stay Cool 

In a typical year, extreme heat contributes to around 120 premature deaths in Toronto. And chances are this summer will be hotter than average.

Climate projections estimate that from 2040 on, much of Canada will experience over 66 days of extreme heat per year, up from the current 20.

Low income tenants in buildings without proper cooling systems are among the most vulnerable, including children, the elderly, and those living with disabilities.

In the long run, the climate crisis needs to be addressed by quickly reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But to help people today, policy makers must understand “that it’s long, cumulative heat indoors, at above 26 C, that’s the problem that needs to be solved,” says Jacqueline Wilson, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA).

CELA is a member of the Heat Safety Coalition, which is pushing the city to implement this maximum temperature bylaw inside residential buildings. Doing so would “create a health-based safety standard … [and] a landlord obligation to a tenant that would be enforceable,” she explains.

The coalition is composed of 10 climate and housing organizations, as well as tenants from the St. James Town buildings. They want the city to provide funds for heat-pumps or air conditioning units, as well as free TTC rides on extreme heat days.

Currently, Toronto’s heat relief strategy kicks in when Environment and Climate Change Canada issues a heat warning. A heat warning is triggered if in a consecutive two-day period: the daytime high reaches 31 C or higher, and the night time temperature stays at 20 C or higher; or if the Humidex is forecast to be greater than or equal to 40 C. (Humidex is the perceived temperature
when factoring in humidity.)

The city’s strategy largely revolves around pointing people towards a network of over 400 “designated cool spaces,” doing street outreach, extending hours of operation of public pools, and supposedly ensuring landlords and tenants are aware of their obligations and options for staying cool.

But Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker, says the strategy is “terribly inadequate and downloads responsibility onto civic spaces” that are often only opened during business hours. “And we know the heat does not stop at 5 p.m. when places close,” she says, adding that many spaces often have security “displacing certain groups of people.”

Previously, the city had dedicated cooling centres that advocates like Lam say had better resources to help people suffering from extreme heat. The city closed those in 2019 in favour of the current designated cool spaces, which are just existing infrastructure such as malls, public pools, libraries, and other public spaces.

“The Right to Be Cool” is a Climate Justice Toronto campaign that is similar though less advertised than the Heat Safety Coalition’s, and it advocates for reopening of the centres.

Wilson also notes that none of the city’s measures address the fact that “it’s inside people’s apartments where the worst problems have been identified.”

The city has focused on retrofitting some buildings, pledging — via the C40 Cities Campaign — to reduce GHG emissions from all buildings to net zero by 2040. To do so, the city says it needs to cut community-wide emissions in half by 2030. Buildings are the biggest source of GHG emissions, so retrofitting them is “a huge step forward in terms of making our buildings less carbon-intensive,” says Wilson.

The municipal government is subsidizing some property owners to make these upgrades, provided they don’t increase the rent. But some of those landlords have already applied for above guideline rent increases to retrofit some of their other buildings, which tenants are currently fighting.

Wilson says more needs to be done to ensure that tenants have equitable access to cool spaces within their homes.

One way to do that is by expanding programs like the Energy Affordability Program, which “covers the full cost of energy efficiency upgrades and now free Energy Star air conditioners or heat pumps” for low-income households.

Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program recipients can also apply for a free air conditioner as a “discretionary benefit.” According to a CELA brief, “a diagnosis is required and it must indicate that a cooling device is required as a part of a treatment plan.”

As the climate — and with it the public health — crisis worsens, Wilsons says an immediate “intervention for the safety of tenants” is needed.

“It’s [about] making the infrastructure net zero,” she says, “but also resilient and safe for people.”

This article appeared in the 2024 Summer issue.