Chinatown is Not Equipped to Handle Heat Waves [OP-ED]

Posted on: August 12th, 2019 at 5:04 am by

The heat wave from July 18-21 revealed serious concerns about Chinatown and other under-served communities where city cooling centers were nonexistent or out of reach for many.

Chinatown had three cooling centers listed on the city’s official website. Yet, the most easily accessible one to seniors had a “members only” sign taped prominently to the door. This left two options: the City Hall senior center located at 100 Gold Street, unrealistic considering the distance walking in oppressive heat; or the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library (both are closed on Sundays).

This downtown neighborhood is a naturally occurring retirement community, and while the younger generation can escape the heat by going to a movie or the beach, this is not a viable option for seniors who instead seek shade in the local park or sit in bakeries. New York City could, and should, do better or risk fatalities in the next major heatwave.

Last month’s temperature spike also revealed that many older buildings in the area are insufficiently wired to run multiple electrical appliances. Some tenants with air conditioners were unable to run them at peak efficiency or were afraid of tripping fuses. Since most of the tenements dotting Chinatown were built at the turn of last century, the electrical wiring is oftentimes equally ancient. Most were wired for maybe 20amps per apartment; modern apartments should have a minimum of 50amps.

So, while many in government advocate for creating more affordable housing, what is being done to preserve and upgrade the existing stock? The majority of available affordable housing in the city is composed of multi-family homes and tenements owned by mom-and-pop landlords, not the big developers. What tax incentives is the city offering them to upgrade properties without passing partial costs onto the tenants thru the MCI program which was recently amended?

Navigating through the labyrinths of cyber bureaucracy, I came across Housing Rehabilitation loan program on the HPD website, but the language was vague and it offered only loans with up to 3% interest. So if there are other existing programs, one would hope lawmakers would educate landlords, and if there aren’t they should introduce legislation to offer interest free loans to mom-and-pop property owners to help bring their buildings up to grade and preserve affordable units in the process. Until then, tenants suffer the heat sitting in front of a fan or risk a fire by overheating ancient electrical wiring by bypassing the fuses.

The need to build new permanent affordable housing is important but but it is equally important to preserve the existing stock and government needs to do everything it can.

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