California’s Renters Need Heat Relief, Too. Why Is the State Leaving them Behind?

Chelsea Kirk, Director of Policy and Research, Building Equity and Transit

June 26, 2024

Climate change is impacting California in myriad ways–including raising average temperatures across the state and causing heat waves that are both more frequent and longer lasting. Living in extreme heat isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s dangerous; in Los Angeles, the average extreme heat day leads to upwards of 1,500 excess emergency room visits due to heat-related illnesses, the majority of which are concentrated in low-income areas in the city, where residents may not have access to air conditioning in their homes or cooling centers in their neighborhoods.

In 2022, the California legislature had the chance to pass a law, AB 209, that would have regulated heat in residential buildings by setting a maximum allowable temperature. Unfortunately, lawmakers were unable to agree on a standard, and so they referred the decision to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). This month, that department issued a report recommending California legislate a maximum indoor air temperature at 82℉ in new construction. This standard excludes existing buildings altogether, leaving millions of residents vulnerable and missing an important opportunity to rectify climate inequities. 

The HCD recommendation leaves behind millions of renters, undermining the efficacy of the policy in protecting Californians. Across the state, approximately 44% of households rent, and more than half are rent burdened, spending more than half their income on housing. Meanwhile, the median age of rental stock in the U.S. is 44 years, indicating that a lot of California’s rental housing is out of compliance with more recent energy standards. Working-class renters, especially renters of color, are more likely to live in energy inefficient and poorly insulated housing and lack the means to cool their homes during extreme heat events. California law does not require landlords to provide fans or air conditioners, leaving these renters to foot the bill themselves. Those who can afford to purchase their own air conditioners are often restricted by landlords from installing them. These renters are more likely to live in neighborhoods that have substantially less green space than other areas, further intensifying heat impacts. They are also disproportionately affected by negative health outcomes associated with extreme heat.

This is why statewide heat mitigation policy implementation must explicitly address the heat burden millions of working-class renters face as our planet warms. This means any indoor temperature standard California mandates must apply to existing buildings, too. We strongly recommend HCD and the Center for the Built Environment revise their recommendations to incorporate strong climate protections for working-class renters, including establishing strategies to cool existing buildings. These revisions are essential to ensuring heat relief measures across California are implemented equitably and prioritize our state’s most vulnerable residents.