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For residents at Cuney Homes, a public housing complex in Third Ward, the air conditioners could not come quickly enough. Keora Alexander, a 22-year-old mother of a 2-year-old and a 1-month-old, has not had an air conditioner in her apartment since she moved in a few weeks ago. Instead they are depending only on a fan to stay cool.

“It’d be great,” she said. “It’s been hard here,” going on to explain how she can hardly cook in the kitchen because it gets too hot.

Help may be on the way. As temperatures hang in the triple digits for many weeks in a row, the Houston Housing Authority announced this week that it will be installing 1,600 air conditioning window units in the three public housing complexes that do not currently provide any form of cooling system – neither central air nor window units. Those communities are: Cuney Homes, Irvington Village in the north near Moody Park, and Kelly Village near the intersection of I-10 and the Eastex Freeway.

Cuney Homes is the oldest public housing complex in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

The announcement comes after years of complaints from tenants, activists and public officials who have called for air conditioning for all those living in Houston’s public housing developments. For decades, residents in those complexes have had to purchase their own air conditioners, or live without one.

In a phone interview on Thursday, the C.E.O. and president of the Houston Housing Authority, David A. Northern, Sr., who started in the role in 2022, stated that the city has had the available funding to install the units in all public housing, but did not.

“The money’s been there, it’s about the priorities,” he said, adding, “I can’t account for the prior administration” regarding why the money was not used for this purpose before.

“It wasn’t a brand new source of money, it was reallocating funds we get every year to the importance of providing this,” he said. “Me being new to Texas, knowing that I need AC as an individual, seeing that my clients – some of the most vulnerable – don’t have AC . . . we have to make that a priority.”

The $2 million in federal funding for the purchase and installation of the units will come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the city’s Heat Relief Initiative.

How residents can get a new AC unit

Each resident in the Cuney Homes, Irvington Village and Kelly Village communities will have the option of having an air conditioner installed in every room that is eligible.

Even people in those communities who have already purchased their own air conditioning units will still be able to benefit from the program, Northern said, explaining that the workers who install the units will give residents the option to replace their own unit with a new one. 

An air conditioning unit placed in a window blocked by plywood at Cuney Homes in Third Ward. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

HHA is planning to begin installation within the next few weeks and complete it by the end of the summer.

Residents do not need to apply or fill out any extensive paperwork, Northern said. In the next few weeks, housing clients will receive notice – in person, through a knock on the door – in Spanish and English of the air conditioning installation plans.

The residents also will not be responsible for any maintenance of the air conditioners installed in their apartments, Northern said, because any repairs would be handled by the housing authority.

Setting an example

“It is important for the government and its corresponding agencies to lead by example and offer housing which addresses dangerous and possibly fatal conditions that affect a person’s health and safety,” said Julia Orduña, Southeast Regional Director for Texas Housers, a tenant advocacy group. “In Texas, extreme heat is one of them.” Orduña hopes that private landlords will follow suit.

Sheila Williams, a 61-year-old resident of Cuney Homes, said she had to purchase her own used air conditioner when she moved into the complex two years ago, but the unit is old and does not work well.

“We need something new here,” Williams said. “It’s been so hot. It’s in the living room and doesn’t reach our bedroom at all.”

All future plans to renovate public housing, such as the Cuney Homes $500 million revitalization project, are still in the works, said Northern. The air conditioners would be removed and reused in other places if Cuney Homes, the city's oldest public housing complex, is torn down.

The Housing Authority is planning to hire at least 22 contractors to install the air conditioners – with the emphasis on small business owners, minority contractors and section three businesses, which ensures employment opportunities for lower-income residents, said Northern.

“This is a health and safety concern for these residents,” he said. “Each housing authority throughout the nation receives a certain amount of money for capital improvements. We just made this a priority.”

Note: This story was updated to clarify that HHA will be providing and installing the air conditioner units, not the city.

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Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Abdelraoufsinno. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...