The window is wide open and a large fan is blasting at full speed inside Bernadette Mamo’s living room, but there’s no reprieve — even at 7:30 at night.
“Even trying to clean around the house is very exhausting,” said Mamo, who spoke to CBC Toronto from her Scarborough apartment last week, during Toronto’s most recent heat wave. “You’re sweating like crazy, profusely, and it’s straining — very taxing.”
Mamo has lived with her 86-year-old mother in the ground-floor rental unit for more than five decades. There is no air conditioning in the building, and on days like this, there are only so many ways to cope.
“We drink cold drinks,” she said. “Showers — lots of showers. And when we can afford it, we go to the mall.”
Mamo’s unit is one of 10 Toronto apartments where a heat and humidity sensor was installed this summer as part of a national CBC News investigation monitoring temperatures inside Canadians’ homes. In five cities across the country — Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal and Windsor — CBC News measured temperatures in a total of 49 apartments that had little or no air conditioning. Data was collected from late June until mid-August.
Eight out of the 10 Toronto households that were measured had readings of 26 C or higher — the maximum indoor temperature widely considered safe — the majority of the time.
Experts are now sounding the alarm on the health impacts of non-stop high temperatures like these, and advocates are calling for changes such as a maximum temperature bylaw.
The hottest temperature measured in Mamo’s home this summer was on July 6, when the temperature hit 28.07 C. With the heat index, it felt like 31.20 C.
Mamo said she’s tried to install air conditioning in the unit, but given the building’s age, it blows all the fuses and she loses power.
She worries about the long-term impacts of the heat on her mother’s health.
“I worry about her getting heat stroke, even though she’s not outside, because it does [exacerbate] everything: your health, your breathing, trying to focus,” she said.
Mamo is far from alone: heat sensors show the hottest temperature inside Khalil Aldroubi’s Scarborough apartment was 29.79 C on Aug. 16. More than half the readings from his apartment were above 26 C.
“We struggle as soon as we put our foot in the building,” said Aldroubi, who lives in a three-bedroom apartment on the 21st floor with his wife and five children.
He has tried, unsuccessfully, to install air conditioning. The first A/C unit he tried damaged the floors of the apartment — which the building management said he’d be responsible for fixing at his own expense. The second was a window unit, but he says the building didn’t allow him to install the bracket needed to hold it in place.
Instead, Aldroubi said, some of his family members pulled two mattresses onto the balcony and slept there on nights when it was too hot to sleep indoors.
“We use the balcony as another bedroom,” he said.
Temperatures in the homes CBC News monitored across the country peaked at 7 p.m. on average — and often stayed high for hours into the night.
“Without that nighttime reprieve, it’s that much harder on one’s body,” said Dr. Aaron Orkin, a public health and emergency physician and researcher at the University of Toronto.
“We see serious increases in those bad events like heat strokes, but also heart attacks and … increases in the rate of death.”
The risks are even higher for older adults, young children, people with health conditions and other vulerable groups, he said.
Orkin says access to air conditioning should be thought of in the same way as access to clean air, clean water, medications and health care, and that there’s plenty that policymakers can do to make it happen.
“We need the political will and the social will to make sure that people are kept safe in their homes,” he said.
Maximum temperature bylaw
Toronto has a heating bylaw that requires all landlords to provide heat to a minimum air temperature of 21 C from Sept. 15 to June 1. But there are no maximum temperature bylaws that require landlords to provide air conditioning.
Where there is air conditioning available, the Property Standards Bylaw requires landlords to keep it on between June 2 and Sept. 14 and maintain an indoor temperature no higher than 26 C.
In response to questions from CBC Toronto, a City of Toronto spokesperson referred to its heat relief strategy, which includes measures such as educating landlords about their obligations to residents and operating public cooling sites for extended hours. But some say the strategy doesn’t go far enough.
Councillor Josh Matlow has long been pushing for changes to ensure tenants aren’t forced to endure extreme temperatures in their homes. In his run for mayor of Toronto earlier this year, he pitched the idea of a maximum temperature bylaw.
Matlow suggested the city and landlords work together to lower temperatures, using whatever means will work best for a given building — such as installing central air conditioning, putting smaller, mini-split air conditioners in individual units, or even retrofitting buildings to cut down on overheating.
“Cities should be working with landlords, and landlords should be working with cities to solve the problem — building by building by building, unit by unit, to make sure that every renter is safe and comfortable in their own home,” he said.
“This is a health and safety issue, and I know that our public service has the ability to figure this out with us if they choose to.”
In recent years, there hasn’t been the political will to tackle this, Matlow said. But he thinks that could be changing. City staff are currently reviewing potential measures that could set minimum and maximum temperatures for rental units, and require landlords to provide respite options for tenants who have no access to air conditioning.
In an interview with CBC Toronto, Mayor Olivia Chow said while she’d consider a maximum temperature for Toronto units, she also worries about the possibility of so-called “renovictions” if landlords are forced to incur costs or carry out renovations under a new bylaw. She says she’d also like help from other levels of government — particularly the province, which governs the Residential Tenancy Act.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs told CBC Toronto that municipalities have the authority to adopt and enforce their own bylaws concerning property standards for rental housing — including air conditioning and maximum temperatures.
It has also passed new legislation to “clarify and enhance” tenants’ rights to install air conditioning in their own units.
It could be months — or years — before such changes take effect. In the meantime Mamo hopes last week’s heat wave is the final one for the summer.
“I’d like to be able to stay in my home comfortably, but … we can’t.”