BC Housing 'looking into' whether residential cooling systems disabled

The provincial housing agency is keeping tight-lipped in the wake of troubling questions around whether some of the most vulnerable people in British Columbia are unauthorized to use cooling systems already installed in their homes.

A newly-unearthed 2017 report examining the efficiency and carbon emissions of heat pumps in multi-unit residential units cites BC Housing officials saying “heat pumps at (one Vancouver seniors complex) are set to only provide heating, not cooling” and that “BC Housing has disabled the cooling function at other heat pump retrofit sites” to save money.The study was co-sponsored by the City of Vancouver, UBC and the Greenest City Initiative

Given that the “Documentation of heat-pump retrofits in multi-unit residential buildings” analysis is several years old, CTV News asked to interview someone with the provincial crown corporation to find out whether the cooling function was disabled during last year’s fatal heat dome and whether the function continues to be restricted at this time. 

Three days after several requests, a spokesperson emailed to say: "Thank you for bringing this to our attention. BC Housing will be looking into these assertions." https://www.bchousing.org/

The BC Coroners’ report into the 2021 heat dome found 98 per cent of the 619 deaths happened indoors, most of them in seniors and people with chronic health issues “without adequate cooling systems.”

TIME TO RECONSIDER AIR CONDITIONING?

Robyn Chan, the chair of the city of Vancouver’s planning commission, discovered the document while doing research and is alarmed at the guidelines discussed in the report, which used three BC Housing properties and several strata complexes as case studies. 

“It's so frustrating to think that these are vulnerable people who are living in this housing -- they identify many of them are new immigrants, they are living below the poverty line, in many cases,” she noted. “The government is then policing how they're able to keep themselves comfortable and what those levels should be.”

I hope everyone denying that air conditioning is an immediate and life saving tool is lobbying @bcndp for other solutions right now. Because @BC_Housing disabled the cooling function on heat pumps because tenants "abused" it (page 22).https://t.co/sDvEP4F5Yd

— Robyn Chan (@robynmchan) June 27, 2022

"Electrically driven heat pumps (HPs) provide a major way to save energy, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and improve comfort," wrote author Michaela Neuberger, who noted BC Housing had been “very supportive” of sharing data and experiences retrofitting buildings with heat pump systems.

“They were only supposed to provide cooling above 27 C outside but our tenants quickly found out that they could override that,” reads one quote attributed to BC Housing’s then-energy manager while discussing a townhouse complex in Surrey. “Because the tenants are not paying the heat pump electricity bills, there are certainly abuses.”

Chan is urging all levels of government to start thinking of heat pumps and air conditioners as medical devices, rather than luxuries, because the environmental impacts are minor compared to the comfort and even life-saving function they provide for the elderly and chronically ill. 

RENTER AND STRATA ISSUES AROUND COOLING SYSTEMS

In the days after the heat dome, some people took to social media claiming their landlord had shut off air conditioning to their unit out of concern over soaring electricity bills, but a lawyer fluent in strata governance and residential tenancy law warned that could get owners in hot water.

“If the air conditioning was there at the start of the tenancy or is in the tenancy agreement, the landlord has an obligation to repair and maintain,” explained Alex Chang, of Lesperance Mendes Lawyers. https://lmlaw.ca/alex-chang/

Failure to do so within a reasonable time could result in a Residential Tenancy Board order to repair or restart cooling systems, with the potential for damages paid to tenants. When it comes to strata living, however, it becomes trickier to install systems outside the unit. 

“Strata corporations have a lot of discretion as to whether or not they want to allow the installation of air conditioning units because it generally involves an alteration to the common property,” said Chang. “If they can prove they have a medical necessity, a tenant might be able to avail themselves of remedies under the human rights code and get orders that force some stratas in some instances to install air conditioning.” 

With so many of the heat dome deaths being indoors, and cities like Vancouver already passing bylaws requiring new mid- and high-rise multi-unit residential structures be built with air conditioning, Chang expects there will be more legislative and regulatory challenges and changes recognizing cooling devices as a medical device, and also “necessary for people to reasonably enjoy their homes.”

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