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People in mobile homes are disproportionately vulnerable to heat. Emergency Arizona law helps

Summers in metro Phoenix are only expected to get hotter. Next to the unhoused population, people who live in mobile or manufactured homes are some of the most vulnerable to the heat.

Existing laws didn’t expressly stop landlords from forcing residents to uninstall crucial cooling methods like window air-conditioning units. Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs recently signed a unanimously passed bill mandating landlords to allow cooling methods including air-conditioning units, awnings and window film.

Patricia Solís is the executive director of the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at Arizona State University. Before the law, she said, man were left at risk.

Heat deaths increase despite more help

Last summer’s record-setting temperatures threw just how bad things had gotten into stark relief against increased efforts to protect vulnerable populations.

“We had seen year after year after year of increased heat-associated deaths. And despite so many efforts by so many organizations and continued investment and improvements of how we're responding, we're still seeing these things tick up,” said Solís. “Another area of extreme impact from heat is definitely on people who have no housing. People experiencing homelessness are really among the group that saw the largest uptick from last summer.”

Mobile home residents, said Solís, emerged as a group whose vulnerabilities were “hidden in plain sight.” One home, she recalled, registered up to 105 degrees indoors.

Solis said her focus is linking research to solutions, and one of the first steps to doing so is educating people like lawmakers.

“We created [a] little booklet to give to different departments,” she said. “In putting this together and getting those solutions out, we were very pleased when we would hear that this was getting those findings to people who really needed them. However, we also then started to hear things like, ‘My landlord won’t let me.’”

DeAnna Mireau, president of the Arizona Association of Manufactured Home and RV Owners, described a meeting of mobile home owners earlier this year where park management called a man’s window air-conditioner noisy and unsightly, and asked him to remove it.

“And that, that really hit a nerve in me,” said Mireau. “I said, ‘You know, what I think is more unsightly, is seeing my neighbor being hauled out in a body bag because they couldn't afford air-conditioning or they weren't allowed to put in an air-conditioner and they passed away. I think what's noisier to me is a fire truck rolling down my road, headed to my neighbor's house because they've just found them passed out from the heat.”

Solís said people who live in mobile or manufactured homes are disproportionately at risk for heat-related illness or death.

“When I first started this study in 2019, there were 38% of the indoor heat-associated deaths in mobile homes and manufactured homes,” she said. “Although only 5% of our housing stock is this type of housing.”

Law can take effect before hottest part of summer

Getting the new law in place was a major win, said Mireau, but some landlords are pushing back.

“We're already getting calls now from people saying, ‘I put a window air conditioner in and now the park managers tell me to take it out,’” Mireau recalled. “The state law supersedes your rules and regulations, and if you can't say that to your manager, I'll make the phone call and say it to him, and then we'll see him in court.”

It’s one of the reasons, she said, the emergency clause lawmakers included was so vital.

“We didn't have to wait 90 days for it to take effect,” Miraeu added, “because that would put us through summer.”

In parks that didn’t allow window air conditioners, she explained, options when your central air went out were very limited. For many, installing a new system is thousands of dollars out of budget, so residents instead get creative with ways to keep their homes cool like trellises, skirting and sun-blocking window films.

Mireau’s home features a few ductless air conditioning units, also known as mini-splits. They work by linking individual room units to an outdoor compressor and can heat, cool, purify and dehumidify air.

“These are used many times in smaller homes and also in Europe,” she explained.

Creating 'more protection for residents and parks'

Miraeu is encouraging her neighbors, like Bach Ta, to look into more cooling solutions like mini-splits now that HB 2146 is law.

Like many other Central Park Village tenants, Ta uses greenery to help beat the heat. Two years’ worth of vines provide shade from the trellis next to his manufactured home.

“Otherwise [it’s] impossible to come out during the summer and like [the] months of July and August,” he said.

Ta, who said he used to spend upwards of $300 a month to cool his home, recently installed a window air conditioner thanks to the newly-enacted law.

“I got to cut down the bill right away,” said Ta, adding that it was a relief to know that his bills won’t be as high this summer with rent on the rise.

Miraeu said that, in addition to following up on ensuring residents can cool their homes this summer, her next focus is on just that.

“From here we are going to continue to work and create more protection for residents and parks,” said Miraeu. “And one of the biggest protections we need is the rent increases. We are pricing people out of this market.”

But, overall, she said she has hope.

“We're literally today as we speak, saving lives, and that is so important,” Miraeu said. “I rest more easily knowing that my neighbors are safer as a result of this work.”

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.